New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Thursday said there was “no question” that Camden is on the rise, but questioned whether tax incentives awarded to companies that moved there under his predecessor had benefited the broad community or just “a select few.”
“You’ve got some fairly troubling data that’s come out, evidence that’s come out" regarding the state’s incentives programs, Murphy, a Democrat, said in an interview at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum. He met with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf and Delaware Gov. John Carney there earlier Thursday for an environmental event.
His remarks came as a task force appointed by Murphy, led by a Rutgers University professor and a former federal prosecutor, investigates tax incentive programs signed into law by then-Gov. Chris Christie in 2013.
The task force has been examining potential abuses in the program, including whether New Jersey companies that moved jobs to Camden lied about threats to move out of state in order to win tax credits.
Some of the companies under scrutiny are affiliated with South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III, a Murphy foe who has denounced the task force’s investigation as a political hit job.
Norcross is executive chairman of the insurance brokerage Conner Strong & Buckelew and unpaid board chairman of Cooper Health System, each of which was awarded tens of millions of dollars in tax credits over 10 years to invest in Camden and move jobs there.
In Camden on Thursday, local officials, business leaders, and former governors spoke of the city’s progress over the past decade and defended the tax credits that helped lure companies.
Murphy said any suggestion that his administration was attacking Camden was misguided. “No administration has done more for Camden in the history of the state than this one,” he said, pointing to state funding for the city.
Murphy appointed the task force shortly after the state comptroller issued a report in January that found the Economic Development Authority had failed to hold companies accountable for jobs and investment they had promised in exchange for tax credits.
In the interview, Murphy said that he had a responsibility to taxpayers to investigate further. The task force has operated independently, he said, and he noted that it had uncovered potential abuses by companies in other parts of the state such as Jersey City, not just Camden.
Murphy wants to change the state’s approach to economic development by partnering with venture capital funds to invest in startups, awarding credits to businesses that create jobs in high-growth industries, and setting caps on the incentives, among other provisions.
Asked whether he thought the 2013 law Christie signed had helped Camden, Murphy said he couldn’t trace the city’s progress to that year but said, “It’s off the mat, there’s no question.”
Murphy said he would not extend the existing programs after they expire July 1. “We need to turn the page,” he said.
The task force is expected to provide recommendations before then, though it does not face a deadline to complete its investigation, Murphy said.
Negotiations with the Democratic-controlled Legislature over the incentives are likely to be intertwined with debate over the state budget. The new spending plan must be signed into law by the end of June.
In his March budget address, Murphy called for extending the state’s top income tax rate of 10.75 percent to income above $1 million. The so-called millionaires’ tax would increase the rate from 8.97 percent.
The top rate currently applies to income exceeding $5 million.
Senate President Steohen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a Norcross ally, has said he opposes the idea.
Sweeney says his focus is to reduce the cost of government, and on Thursday he introduced legislation that would create a hybrid pension plan for new public workers and those with fewer than five years of service. Sweeney also proposed a measure he says would reduce the government’s share of health-care costs for public employees.
Murphy said he would not be “enthusiastic about either of those things.”
“Public sector employees, we can’t think of them as abstract,” he said. “They are the backbone of the middle class in our state.”
He attributed New Jersey’s pension crisis to the state’s years-long failure to meet its obligations.
He also noted his proposed budget included $1.1 billion in savings, largely driven by cuts to public workers’ health-care costs.
Murphy spoke a day after Sweeney declared that legislation to legalize recreational marijuana had died. Sweeney said he intends to put the issue on the ballot in 2020 as a referendum.
“This is a hard vote, particularly for somebody of an older generation,” Murphy said Thursday when asked to explain why the legislation failed.