Long-simmering tension between South Jersey’s unelected political boss George E. Norcross III and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy boiled over Tuesday when Norcross filed suit against Murphy claiming that a gubernatorial task force publicly nosing around in the tailored-for-Camden elements of a statewide tax break program is unlawful. Norcross and fellow plaintiffs want the task force dissolved.
The showdown between two powerful Democratic millionaires is enlightening and even entertaining but should not distract attention from the necessary scrutiny of the gold rush of Garden State tax incentives. Murphy’s task force is raising serious questions about cronyism, corporate welfare, and the exercise of political prerogatives at public expense.
Why the notion of lavishing public subsidies on private companies to “fight poverty” so stubbornly endures in New Jersey is another question to which state taxpayers deserve answers. This is especially true given that at least $1.6 billion in valuable tax breaks, justified by promises to create jobs for Camden residents, have been approved by the state’s Economic Development Authority. About 850 city residents are employed at companies that have received credits.
But an audit ordered by Murphy concluded that at least some of the unnamed companies receiving EDA incentives statewide were approved despite having little in the way of concrete targets for, assessments of, or data about job creation. The enabling legislation itself requires of recipients almost nothing in the way of connecting local residents with the employment and career opportunities being promised in their communities.
If the public-private investments made in Camden since 2013 are as potentially transformative as Norcross and other boosters insist, where is the extraordinary effort to educate, recruit, train, and hire enough city residents to actually make a dent in Camden’s profound poverty? And if such sensible and practical considerations were overlooked initially, they should have been put in place by now — nine months after the uproar over hiring at Holtec International, the high-tech manufacturer that received $260 million in credits to build a massive complex in South Camden, and then complained about the difficulty of finding qualified Camden candidates.
Successful workforce development models already exist . Hopeworks has placed 29 Camden residents under 25 years old at well-paying technical positions at tax-break recipients such as American Water and Cooper Health System in the last six months alone. The Rowan University / Rutgers-Camden Board of Governors recently placed four city students who completed a training program in health-care jobs in the city, with an additional six poised to take their final exams.
Both programs prepare young people forjobs, rather than simply conferring certifications, and support them after they start their jobs. These approaches work and can be scaled up without hiring a bunch of favorite consultants (a.k.a., faithful contributors to the South Jersey Democratic machine) to craft yet another plan at taxpayers’ expense.
If “Camden Rising” is to be more than a slogan, Norcross and Murphy need to rise above politics as usual and work together so this unprecedented public-private investment can pay off for everyone — especially for the people who live in the city.