In breathtaking, often infuriating detail, New Jersey’s probe has laid out how a rather modest state tax break program ballooned into an extraordinary source of public largesse. The 79-page report brings to light how incentives ostensibly aimed at job creation in Camden and other struggling communities were manipulated to benefit politically connected companies and institutions. A heliport (really?) atop the towering new Camden Waterfront headquarters of power broker George E. Norcross III’s insurance company was singled out as an especially questionable item for taxpayer subsidy.
The report from a task force appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy was made public Monday, shortly after a court rejected a Norcross-led effort to block its release. The document meticulously explores the rewording of requirements and regulations, the sweetening of incentives, and the addition of special exceptions and exemptions to a statewide program that has provided more than $1.6 billion in tax breaks to companies moving to or expanding in Camden.
The report describes many of these alterations as made with the assistance of, or what sounds in some instances like instructions from, Parker McCay, the high-voltage Mount Laurel law firm where George Norcross’ brother Philip A. Norcross is a shareholder. Meanwhile, the incentives program metastasized from a $200 million statewide cap to no cap at all (allowing for individual Camden projects to get as much as $260 million in tax credits). All this went on under the singularly unwatchful eyes of the state Economic Development Authority.
Employment growth in a city that has been crippled by profound poverty for generations was the much-cited original intention for the incentives. But the report shows the EDA continued disbursing goodies to well-heeled companies even as the original “jobs for Camden” rationale was subordinated to the exigencies of crony capitalism.
Let’s set aside the long-discredited, but stubbornly enduring political fantasy that showering corporations with public money will somehow benefit impoverished people and places. Why a notoriously high-tax state like New Jersey would go all in on such a scheme might seem inexplicable to those unfamiliar with the unholy alliance Norcross forged with former Republican Gov. Chris Christie; together they set the table for the virtual takeover/makeover of Camden by the Democratic power broker and those beholden to or allied with him.
The control exerted by Norcross and the authoritarian machine he runs likely explains the sorry spectacle of the Democrat-dominated state Assembly this week moving forward with a premature if not preposterous measure to extend the current tax incentive program. The same program to which successive rewrites enabled expenditures such as that rooftop parking spot to qualify for subsidy by taxpayers, most of them unlikely to ride in, much less need a place to land, a helicopter.
The report’s nine recommendations include revamping how the EDA does business, recapturing some of the money, and improving oversight of the tax credit program. What looks in the report like unbridled greed makes it hard to see the subsidized developments that might actually do some good in a city that deserves all the help it can get. But right now it seems New Jersey taxpayers, including the tens of thousands of taxpayers living in Camden, deserve a refund.