Bills requiring New Jersey public contracts at the state and local levels to use U.S.-made goods passed the state Legislature on Thursday over the objections of business groups, which argued that the measures would make the state less competitive.
The five bills - one related to state and local entities, including state colleges, and the others to bistate transportation agencies, including the Delaware River Port Authority - passed largely along party lines in the Democratic-controlled Assembly. In the Senate, which had previously passed some of the bills, the remaining bill Thursday garnered Democratic and some Republican support.
The package expands requirements for U.S.-made goods in certain public contracts.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), a sponsor of the bills, said the new requirements would be similar to federal standards and would promote domestic job growth.
"It's about manufacturing in the United States," said Sweeney, a union ironworker.
Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic), who also sponsored the bills, said the measures were an effort to "encourage and promote American business."
But opponents, including other Republican lawmakers and business groups in and outside New Jersey, said the requirements would be too onerous. The bill applying to contracts with state and local entities wouldn't just require that a product be made in the United States but that the majority of its components are made here.
With many U.S. goods including some foreign-made components, the requirement "transcends a lot of different companies," said Mike Egenton, senior vice president for government relations for the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. "We're a global economy."
The chamber has been getting calls from the Canadian consulate, Egenton said. Others opposed included the New Jersey Business and Industry Association and the Washington-based Organization for International Investment, whose membership consists of U.S. subsidiaries of companies headquartered abroad.
Nancy McLernon, the organization's president and CEO, said member companies had 228,000 workers in New Jersey, one-third in manufacturing. "As states or countries become isolationist, it only serves to hurt the local economy," she said.
Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union), joined by other Republicans from the Assembly, criticized the legislation at a news conference Thursday, saying it "sends a very bad message to businesses."
"I have no doubt part of the reason you pass this bill is political appearances and special interests," he said, also mentioning "a race in 2017 for governor." Sweeney is seen as a likely candidate.
Asked about Bramnick's assertions of special interests, Sweeney said, "That's ridiculous."
"You know why I support it? I've watched products come to this country," he said. "They say that you can't manufacture steel here anymore, right? You can, but the problem is, the steel is being manufactured in other countries, being subsidized by those countries."
Assembly Republicans said the bills would result in increased costs to taxpayers. In the bill pertaining to contracts for state and local entities, waivers could be granted if the cost of a U.S.-made product was more than 20 percent above a foreign-made alternative.
Sweeney said there were costs of not using U.S.-made products: "Costs go up when you're competing against companies that are subsidizing products. You're getting a cheaper price on the product but you're losing jobs, which harms the economy. Which drives costs of government services to the families," he said.
O'Toole said lawmakers had responded to concerns of businesses by carving out exceptions, including for pharmaceuticals and technology.
"We're trying to do something to stimulate the economy," he said.