Tax Burden, Transportation Infrastructure Top List of Economic Concerns

John Reitmeyer | September 17, 2015 | Budget
State’s business leaders gather in Atlantic City to address problems still hindering growth

Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce
New Jersey’s unemployment rate has been on a steady decline and state tax collections have improved in recent months, but that doesn’t mean the state’s business community is ready to declare a “mission accomplished” on the economy.

At least 400 business leaders will gather in Atlantic City today for the start of two-day business summit sponsored by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. On the agenda for the event at the Borgata are a series of panel discussions focusing on ways to generate more economic growth in New Jersey.

Leaders from the state Senate and Assembly from both political parties plan to participate in a special legislative forum scheduled for tomorrow morning.

Tom Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the chamber, said the idea for the summit grew out of a recent survey of the state’s business community that his organization conducted. The event will focus on four different areas of concern that were raised in the survey: transportation infrastructure, taxes, workforce development, and regulatory environment.

“We hope to have a meaningful dialogue on some of the issues that we feel need to be addressed to move the state forward,” Bracken said.

The summit comes at an interesting time for the New Jersey economy and the business community, and even the Atlantic City location is noteworthy when it comes to the state’s ongoing efforts to recover from the last recession.

Though New Jersey hasn’t fully recovered all of the jobs lost when the national economy tanked beginning in 2007, it has made progress in recent months. The state unemployment rate dropped to 6.1 percent in June, and then again to 5.9 percent in July, which is the lowest the state’s jobless average has been since 2008.

State tax collections, which took a huge hit during the recession, have also showed some promising signs in recent months. The last fiscal year ended on June 30 with an unexpected $200 million windfall after tax collections outperformed budget estimates, and early indications from the state Department of Treasury for the fiscal year that began July 1 indicate tax collections are coming in higher than at this point last year.

And in Atlantic City, where the summit will be held, casino revenues are showing some improvement after a series of casino closures last year rocked the resort. Atlantic City also recently celebrated the opening of a major new retail store by fishing and hunting-oriented Bass Pro Shops.

But Bracken said despite those successes, more needs to be done to boost New Jersey’s overall business climate.

“That’s all great news, but the fact is we have to look at where we are vis-a-vis competitiveness when it comes to other states,” Bracken said.

He pointed to New Jersey’s perennial poor standing in state-by-state rankings of business climate.

[related]For example, New Jersey was ranked 41st in a list of the best places for business that was published by Forbes magazine. And the Tax Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based organization that monitors state tax policies, put New Jersey dead last among the 50 states for business-tax climate in its 2015 rankings. High property and income taxes, and the state’s aggressive estate and inheritance taxes, were all listed as factors.

While Bracken said all of the issues up for discussion are important for New Jersey businesses, the most pressing concern may be transportation infrastructure and what’s going to happen to the state’s Transportation Trust Fund.

New Jersey is in the final year of a five-year, $8 billion transportation-spending initiative launched by Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. But it’s unclear how the Christie administration plans to sustain the trust fund beyond June 30, 2016, when the plan for the current fiscal year ends.

By then, revenue from New Jersey’s 14.5-cent gas tax and other sources of cash for the trust fund will only cover its significant debt — unless the tax is increased or some other funding option is agreed on. And lawmakers have been reluctant, with all 80 Assembly seats up for grabs in November, to talk much about the issue.

In the chamber’s recent survey, concern about transportation funding came in second to only taxes when business leaders were asked to list the state’s biggest issues left to resolve. Transportation and infrastructure will be the subject of a 2:30 p.m. panel discussion today.

“The fact remains, by next June, by anybody’s analysis, the well is dry,” Bracken said. “The fact is we’ve got a major problem staring us in the face.”