Fallout from Hurricane Sandy and this month’s tragic boardwalk fire are not the only costs that New Jersey taxpayers will face in the coming years – Governor Chris Christie has signed off on a massive overhaul of the state’s business subsidy system that will cost the state plenty.
The Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 consolidates New Jersey’s biggest subsidy programs into two programs that will likely cost more than the largest five currently do. Gone are the Business Employment Incentive Program (BEIP), the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit, and the Business Retention and Relocation Assistance Grant (BRRAG) tax credit. The state will now award job subsidies to companies through the Economic Redevelopment Growth Grant and the Grow New Jersey program. Supporters of the Act argue that streamlining and simplifying New Jersey’s subsidy system will enhance the business climate of the state, but the legislation is seriously deficient in the matter of accountability.
This is not to say that the state’s previous subsidies were without problems. In its nearly two decades of use, BEIP awards have cost the state over $1.5 billion. At one point, the New Jersey Economic Development Authority was even issuing bonds in order to meet its BEIP debt obligations to subsidized companies.
Recently the Christie Administration has accelerated its subsidy spending, amounting to more than $2 billion awarded to companies in the last 3 years alone through a combination of programs. Over half of that amount was spent through the once-credible Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program, a subsidy designed to spur development near transit stations. With the support of Gov. Christie, the pool of credits available for the program was expanded and quickly exhausted, with many of the awards going to companies making short in-state moves.
The two remaining subsidy programs are deeply flawed. The Economic Redevelopment and Growth Grant (ERG) program, enacted in 2008, diverts more types of tax revenue away from public coffers than any other tax increment financing program in the nation. One of the first awards made through this program was a bailout for the struggling Revel Casino in Atlantic City – a project so financially toxic that Morgan Stanley walked away from its nearly $1 billion investment in the development. (Revel has since declared and emerged from bankruptcy.)
Ironically enough, the other surviving subsidy, Grow New Jersey, was enacted to appease suburban and rural areas that had lost jobs through headquarters relocations subsidized by the out-of-control Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit program. Since the first application was approved in April 2012, the state has awarded an average of $22.2 million per month to New Jersey businesses.
Unsurprisingly, in their new iterations, Grow New Jersey and ERG lack aggregate cost controls. There is no annual or program-wide cap for use of either subsidy, virtually ensuring that New Jersey’s economic development spending spree will continue unchecked. The potential costs to the state are immeasurable; fiscal analysis of the bill conducted by the Office of Legislative Services concluded that “the bill will produce an indeterminate multi-year State revenue loss” but it “cannot project the direction or magnitude of the bill’s net fiscal impact on the State and local governments.” There is a $350 million maximum subsidy per company but business eligibility criteria have been loosened.
Aside from the potentially astronomical costs to the tax-paying public, the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 introduces a host of other accountability problems to the state’s subsidy system. Chief criticisms include the inclusion of retailers as eligible recipients, the removal of the state’s long-standing prevailing wage requirement for subsidized facilities, the elimination of the requirement that subsidized businesses pay a portion of health care benefit premiums, the allowance for businesses to count part time employees toward job creation requirements, and the high probability that both subsidy programs will accelerate suburban sprawl in the state.
In spite of the Christie Administration’s unprecedented spending on business subsidies over the past three years, New Jersey’s economic recovery lags behind most of the nation. At last count, the state unemployment rate was 8.7 percent, earning it a ranking of 43rd in the country. More unchecked spending on business subsidies is surely no remedy for the state’s employment problem. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, an adage unfortunately lost on Gov. Christie and New Jersey’s lawmakers.