After spending the final weeks of 2016 aggressively attacking New Jersey newspaper publishers, Gov. Chris Christie shifted gears yesterday, enacting a new law that should make it easier for small businesses to qualify for state and federal contracts.
Christie signed the new law during a public event in Trenton, marking his first official action of 2017. It gives New Jersey small businesses access to several different services that will be provided through the state Economic Development Authority, including grant funding and help obtaining surety bonds to back up their work.
Bipartisan sponsors of the bill that led to the new law praised Christie’s action yesterday, saying it will put the state’s many small businesses on a more equal footing with the larger New Jersey companies that typically bid for and win state and federal work. The initiative will also strengthen the Economic Development Authority’s ties to small businesses after the agency has become primarily known during Christie’s two terms in office for lavishing big corporations with tax incentives worth billions of dollars.
For Christie, a Republican entering his final full year in office, yesterday’s event also gave him an opportunity to try to set a new tone and focus for his administration following a tumultuous 2016. The last year for Christie included frequent trips out of state during his failed bid for president, a bruising federal corruption trial of two former close allies, and a botched attempt to fast-track legislation seeking to abolish a state requirement that forces governments to buy legal notices in newspapers, an effort that was widely viewed as an attempt to punish New Jersey newspapers for years of tough coverage.
But during the event held at the African American Chamber of Commerce in Trenton yesterday, Christie spoke mostly about New Jersey’s small-business community, saying the bill that he was signing into law would provide a boost to small-business owners and their employees, who make up the biggest share of the state’s private-sector workforce.
“This is really touching families all across New Jersey who are supported by, and work for, small businesses in this state,” Christie said.
The new law will create the “Small Business Bonding Readiness Assistance Program,” which is designed to help make it easier for small businesses to win the public contracts that are put out to bid on a regular basis by state and federal governments. The new program is primarily aimed at helping small businesses obtain and qualify for surety bonds. It will require that consulting services, workshops, and other support be provided through the EDA.
A new, non-lapsing revolving fund will also be established to help small businesses by providing grant funding.
“We have many small businesses that are more than capable of undertaking public projects here in New Jersey, but they aren’t afforded the same opportunities as larger businesses when regulations prevent them from even entering the bidding process,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio (R-Morris).
“With this law, we can start to cut away some of that red tape and create new chances for these local companies to grow and create new jobs in areas of need,” said Pennacchio, a primary sponsor of the bill which received widespread bipartisan support as it cleared the state Legislature last year.
“On the back end, this is also a win-win for taxpayers because increased competition inherently helps lower costs so the more people vying for government contracts will ultimately help reduce the costs taxpayers must bear,” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union). “Essentially, we’re creating a more business-friendly environment in New Jersey while eyeing long-term savings for taxpayers,” said Holley, another primary sponsor of the legislation.
Melissa Orsen, the EDA’s chief executive officer, said in a statement that her agency “remains committed to supporting small-business growth in the State.”
“We look forward to developing a surety bond program with industry input to increase opportunities for small businesses in New Jersey to engage in public contracts,” Orsen said.
Christie said during yesterday’s ceremony he specifically chose to sign the bipartisan bill helping small businesses as his first action of the new year to send a message to state leaders that would “hopefully call us to our better angels.”
“I wanted to make my first public act in the new year, this signing, in this place, to let people know that regardless of your party, regardless of what sector of business you work in, regardless of what region in the state you come from, we have work to do this year,” Christie said. “We have work to do not only for our economy and our businesses, we have work to do for our families and each other.”
“That is what I’m going to be committing myself to over the next year in every way that I possibly can,” he said.
Christie’s comments would seem to indicate a change in focus from the final weeks of 2016, which saw the governor aggressively support legislation that sought to undo a longstanding state transparency law that has required governments in New Jersey to publish paid legal notices in newspapers to advertise things like budgets, proposed ordinances and bidding opportunities for public work. Christie personally took aim at the publishers of the state’s largest newspapers in social-media posts, portraying the receipt of advertising fees for the legal notices as public subsidies.
But his vocal campaign against the newspapers and close cooperation from Democratic legislative leaders ended up creating a backlash, particularly among Democrats. And legislative leaders in both the Assembly and Senate ultimately pulled the legislation off voting agendas at the end of December after it became clear rank-and-file lawmakers were no longer willing to support a measure that was dubbed by many as Christie’s “newspaper-revenge bill.”
Also pulled from the voting agendas at the same time was legislation advancing alongside the legal-notices bill that would have changed state ethics rules to allow Christie to profit from a book-publishing deal. The same bill would have authorized salary increases for executive-branch cabinet members, judges, and dozens of other non-rank-and-file government workers. While that bill appears to have been killed, Christie and legislative leaders have left the door open to reviving the effort to end the mandatory publishing of legal notices.
Christie did not take questions from reporters after the bill-signing yesterday, continuing a practice he followed during the final months of 2016.