Profile: Doing Much More Than Just Making Sure the Numbers Add Up

As head of the NJ Society of Certified Public Accountants, Ralph Albert Thomas is helping his organization take a more active role in State House issues

Ralph Albert Thomas
Who he is: Ralph Albert Thomas, chief executive officer and executive director of the New Jersey Society of Certified Public Accountants.

Home: Thomas, 61, lives in South Brunswick. He’s married and has a daughter.

Why he matters: The more than 100-year-old organization that Thomas has led since 1999 has more than 15,000 members across the state, and it has become an increasingly active voice inside the State House in recent years. Thomas himself has worked with lawmakers from both parties to help shape issues ranging from income-tax policy to transportation funding.

D.C. roots: A native of Washington, D.C., Thomas said he grew up just 17 blocks from the U.S. Capitol. He went on to attend Lehigh University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in business, economics, and accounting, and then a master’s of business administration. Thomas said he also briefly considered entering the world of politics before being cautioned about the pitfalls by a trusted mentor. Instead, he chose to pursue a career in private-sector accounting.

“They wanted to know what was wrong with me,” Thomas said with a laugh about his initial political aspirations.

Branching out: Thomas said that during its long history his organization has largely been a reactive group when it comes to state policies. But now he said its members want to see the group take on a more active role, going beyond just the topics of basic tax policy and licensing. In recent weeks the organization has taken firm positions on the hottest issues in the State House, including the need to renew the state Transportation Trust Fund and a planned constitutional amendment that would ask voters this summer to approve a series of ramped up state contributions to the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system.

“The things we’re weighing in on now will ultimately have an impact on our members and the clients they serve,” Thomas said.

He cited the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce and the New Jersey Business & Industry Association as examples of the type of influence his organization could ultimately have.

“Now we see ourselves as trying to play on the same level,” Thomas said.

Focusing on the facts: Getting more involved in the State House also means dealing with the politics that often carry the day. For example, the organization has supported a bipartisan plan to renew transportation funding as part of a broader deal worked out in the Senate that would hike New Jersey’s gas tax but phase out the estate tax and make a number of other tax cuts. Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, has rejected that deal and instead called for a sales-tax cut, resulting in an ongoing stalemate.

A big factor for the members of the accountants’ organization is the eventual elimination of the estate tax, which is why the group prefers the Senate’s plan over the governor’s. They also support the plans link to a constitutional amendment going on the ballot this fall that would dedicate all of the revenue raised by New Jersey’s fuel taxes to only transportation projects, Thomas said.

“I think the key thing that we’re concerned about is the accountability for money that goes into the trust fund,” Thomas said.

But the group has also firmly opposed the proposed pension-funding constitutional amendment, which has strong support from Democratic legislative leaders and public-employee unions. If approved by voters, the amendment would mean the annual state pension payments would eventually rise to more than $5 billion — the current budget dedicates $1.3 billion to the pension system — and leaders would be prohibited from making any changes despite a recession.

“We think it shouldn’t be done through a constitutional amendment,” Thomas said. “There’s no flexibility in future budget years.”

Keeping the focus on the facts of each issue instead of the politics is the best way to navigate the politics, Thomas explained.