Making it easier to do business in New Jersey — the ultimate ask

Panel at ReNew Jersey Summit offer suggestions for a never-ending issue

Chris Abruzzo, the vice president of business development at New Jersey American Water, got straight to the point Wednesday — because that’s the kind of event the ReNew Jersey Business Summit & Expo was.

“The state of New Jersey needs to make doing business with the state of New Jersey easier for the business community and even residents,” he said. “No disrespect to lawyers or engineers, but you shouldn’t need to hire an engineering firm or a law firm to help you get a permit or license. It shouldn’t be that complicated.”

Abruzzo, speaking on a Day 2 panel — “The 2025 Gubernatorial Campaign: Issues Important to Business” — was just getting started. And he acknowledged to the crowd in Atlantic City that all cases can be different.

“Some permits, especially with the DEP, are complicated — and they do require sophisticated applications,” he said. “But agencies can help streamline (the process) by looking at the things that they’re doing for the services they provide and making sure, especially with today’s technology, that it’s easier.

“When you apply for an application, you should have a fairly good idea of how long it’s going to take to get your permit or your license — you should know what the cost is going to be. You shouldn’t have to pick up a small business loan to get that permit or that license.”

The ReNew Jersey Summit was created to produce this type of dialogue. Moderator Tom Bracken, the CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, certainly encouraged it.

On this panel, the length of the government process appeared to be more of an issue than having a government process.

Jim Kirkos, the CEO of the Meadowlands Chamber, said he supports regulation — and acknowledges the role it has played in the state in the past, when there were too many bad actors. He called for an update.

“(Developers) are being treated the way they were 30 years ago,” he said. “The mentality of the regulatory environment is if it was still happening, and it’s changed — so, government agencies need to change.”

Kirkos said the mindset needs to change.

“Today’s actors are very different; developers are very different — and they should be treated differently,” he said.

Gil Medina, an executive vice president at CBRE who once served as the secretary of commerce in the state, acknowledged government can play a key role in areas that no one else can, including law enforcement, protecting the environment and transportation infrastructure.

The problem, Medina said, is that government can’t control its appetite.

“We continue to come up with more programs and more ways to spend money, which these taxes have to go up,” he said. “And it begins to get to a point where it’s not sustaining.”

His solution:” I think government should spend, less tax less, regulate less, legislative less and govern better,” he said.

Finding that balance can be difficult.

Diane Wasser, the partner in charge at EisnerAmper, had plenty of praise for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority and the programs it offers. The praise, however, came with a complaint.

Wasser said the time it can take to finish the application and get it approved can be so lengthy that she’s had clients stop the process before completing it.

Another complaint is that some of the programs come with stipulations — such as paying above minimum wage — that can cancel out the benefit of the program, she said.

“Our programs are really, really good,” she said. “(EDA CEO) Tim Sullivan does a great job. However, one of the things that can be a huge opportunity is to make them less cumbersome, less costly and less confusing. It’s really hard to get help from the state when people need it.

“It’s bittersweet; there are great incentives, and you want to take advantage of that, but it’s just so cumbersome that some people give up.”

Don’t be confused. The group wasn’t completely down on the state. Far from it.

It praised the state’s educated workforce, workforce development initiatives and the strong connection between business and academia.

It came with concerns, however. The cost of housing — and the need for more workforce housing — is great.

Nothing, however, is more important than finding more revenue, especially at a time when taxes are going up, Kirkos said.

“Business growth provides that natural revenue stream and rateables,” he said. “If we don’t continue to be business friendly, the revenue streams which are going to dry up — and then, we’re going to have real issues.”

Abruzzo, who came to NJAW after years of working in Pennsylvania, said business taxes set the image of the state.

“The one thing that I think is true, no matter what state you work in, is high taxes on your business community sends a really bad message to businesses when they want to come to your state,” he said. “And, for the businesses that are there, when you increase those taxes to pay for other services, there is a direct correlation, whether it’s hiring new employees or having to lay off employees, the money doesn’t just come out of nowhere.

“When you’re taxing businesses, there is a direct impact. And I think that the next governor has to take a really close look at. If you want to unleash the talent, and the potential of New Jersey business, you’ve got to create a plan that is more attractive to businesses, both large and small.”