TRENTON - New Jersey lawmakers continued to tackle the economy Tuesday, advancing proposals aimed at keeping and creating jobs.
Among the bills moved forward by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee was a measure allowing out-of-work residents to receive 24 hours a week of job training while on unemployment benefits, modeled after a program in Georgia.
Sen. Linda Greenstein (D., Middlesex), a sponsor, said the bill, which appropriates $10 million for the program, would help get people off the unemployment rolls and ensure the solvency of the unemployment trust fund.
But Eric Richard, a representative of the AFL-CIO, voiced concern that some businesses could use participants as free labor rather than provide real training and asked lawmakers to incorporate a provision for workers' compensation.
The proposal is a key part of the Legislature's "Back to Work NJ" effort, a package of 30 economic-stimulus bills that legislative leaders promised to consider through December, with final passage expected early next year.
As lawmakers in Trenton discussed unemployment, Assembly Minority Leader Alex DeCroce told business leaders in Iselin on Tuesday that one way to prop up New Jersey's depleted unemployment fund would be to reduce jobless benefits.
The residents collecting $550 per week have little incentive to look for a job, the Morris County Republican told the Business and Industry Association.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) disagreed, saying people in the construction trades, where unemployment is around 50 percent, would "go to work tomorrow."
The state's unemployment rate overall is 9.2 percent, 0.4 percent below the national average.
Business owners face an automatic unemployment-tax increase in July. New Jersey has borrowed $1.7 billion from the federal government to meet its unemployment obligation, and that money will have to be repaid with interest.
Also Tuesday, the Senate budget committee approved allowing people to file, reopen, cancel, or close jobless benefits online.
Other bills released by the panel would give tax breaks to companies offering paid internships and would establish a "closing fund" for projects that benefit New Jersey but require additional money as an incentive to locate or remain in the state.
Republicans spoke against the closing-fund proposal, with Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic) saying the state didn't have the money.
And the GOP questioned why the Assembly and Senate budget committees - dominated by Democrats - weren't considering various Republican-led economic-development initiatives.
The Assembly Budget Committee also released a slew of bills, which won praise from state business groups. Those proposals would:
Streamline how the state calculates the amount of corporate income subject to taxes and expand financial assistance under the state's Business Retention and Relocation Assistance Grant program.
Create a consolidated category of business-related income and allow taxpayers to carry forward net losses.
Expand eligibility for a tax credit for a business that employs at least 250 people and is located in an urban transit hub.
Direct the Commission on Higher Education to maintain a database of research and development efforts at New Jersey's colleges, and charge the Economic Development Authority with serving as a liaison between the university and business communities.
Provide tax breaks for "angel investments" - investments awarded by wealthy people to start-up ventures in the emerging technology field.