Norcross responds to reports on tax incentives in Camden

The state’s tax incentives were criticized again Wednesday after two scathing news reports revealed the influential role South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross and his allies played in the Economic Opportunity Act of 2013 — the law that revamped the state’s incentives to what they are today.

In a statement Wednesday afternoon, Norcross reiterated a sentiment he and others in Camden have expressed before: Without the tax credits, Camden would not be seeing the influx of jobs and general attention from the business community that it has in recent years.

“As one of the foremost champions of Camden’s renaissance, I join with other Camden leaders to thank WNYC Radio for its lengthy story detailing the massive undertaking to help rebuild Camden’s future,” Norcross said in the statement.

“While much of the story has previously been reported by other outlets, this was the first effort to compile all of the hard work that went into getting the city on its current path forward. The story reported that there is at least $1.6 billion of new private sector investment in a city that was, on its good days, merely ‘struggling.’ Now, government statistics reveal that jobs and graduation rates are up, while crime, unemployment and poverty are down.”

The story highlighted Camden’s overwhelming success in obtaining more than $1 billion in awards, as well as securing the largest tax break in the state, which was awarded to manufacturing company Holtec, according to the joint report from WNYC and ProPublica.

Holtec’s CEO came under fire last year for negative comments about the Camden workforce.

He also told ROI-NJ at the time that the plant in Camden “is costing us millions right now.”

Norcross said the turnaround story Camden currently tells is due to the tools it was given through tax incentives to help boost the economy.

“In its reporting, WNYC highlighted the legislative back-and-forth that reformed the Grow NJ program in 2013 to ensure that Camden, America’s poorest and most dangerous city, was given the tools it needed to attract the private investment needed to rebuild the city’s tax base,” Norcross said.

“But even with the surge of interest and investment in Camden, the record is clear: Over the last two decades and, until recently, Camden and South Jersey have received just a small percentage of the state’s economic incentives, while companies like Goldman Sachs, UPS, Siemens, Forbes, JPMorgan, Prudential, Panasonic and Verizon received eight- and nine-figure tax credits for locations in North Jersey. The $1.6 billion for Camden projects identified by WNYC is just a fraction of the $5 billion recently committed to Amazon if it would move to Newark.

“The fact that private investment is returning to Camden is no accident — it was planned and fought for. As WNYC and other media outlets have reported, the commitment to rebuilding Camden’s future began years ago and focused on the city’s three biggest challenges: improving public safety, reforming education and bringing jobs and economic investment to the city. While the work is not done, by all accounts the city is making real progress. That’s why, when President Barack Obama toured the city, he praised it as a ‘symbol of promise for the nation.’

“As the WNYC story makes clear, this dramatic change wasn’t due to luck or happenstance. It is the product of thoughtful planning and hard work by many people over the course of almost a decade. We are not nor will we be deterred from realizing the full potential of this great city for its residents and businesses. Camden is truly rising.”

Meanwhile, a New York Times article revealed that a lawyer associated with Norcross’ brother’s law firm had influence in crafting the bill, although he was not a lobbyist.

Gov. Phil Murphy released a statement in response to both articles Wednesday afternoon.

“I am deeply troubled by the findings outlined in both the WNYC report this morning and the New York Times story this afternoon,” he said. “Coupled with what we already know about how the tax incentive program operated over the past six years, I believe now more than ever in the importance of the task force I commissioned.

“Until we’ve taken a good hard look at the entire process, I don’t believe we can be sure that all taxpayer money has been properly spent and accounted for. If there was fraud in this program, I expect the task force will uncover it and those individuals will be held accountable.

“Given the breadth of these findings and those so far reported by the task force, I believe anything short of a total revamp of the tax incentive program is a disservice to the hard-working taxpayers of New Jersey.”

Tom Bracken, CEO and president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said that all the negative stories about the tax incentives will affect the future of the Economic Development Authority, which has been the target of a recent onslaught of negative news, including an ousting of its board chair by Murphy as well as an audit by the Office of the State Comptroller highlighting problems with the very incentives in Wednesday’s news reports.

“It’s a very difficult situation, because there are so many people taking shots at the EDA,” Bracken told ROI-NJ on Wednesday.

“And a lot of stuff that is being aimed at the EDA is anecdotal and has very few facts.”

Bracken said that, in its 42-year history, the EDA has done its fair share to help promote business in New Jersey and kept the state competitive.

“We need to take a pause and we need to take the time to do the EDA programs correctly,” he said.

Bracken also referred to recent news that lawmakers are trying to extend the current programs in order to take a longer time to work on the new programs that Murphy outlined in his economic vision in November.