Last year was New Jersey’s strongest for private-sector job growth in more than a decade, but despite that improvement the state’s employment rate is still slightly worse than it was just before the last recession. That makes New Jersey one of 22 U.S. states still seeing employment rates lower than they were in late 2007 before the Great Recession, according to a new analysis released this week by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The new data from Pew’s “Fiscal 50” survey comes amid an ongoing debate in Trenton over the best way to maintain New Jersey’s slow but steady economic growth since the last recession.Gov. Chris Christie has called for tax reform, including a repeal of New Jersey’s estate tax, to help keep the momentum going. But Democratic legislative leaders are pushing for more investment in higher education and transportation infrastructure, and the establishment of a $15 minimum wage to keep the state economy growing. Some economists prefer to focus on the employment rate instead of the unemployment rate because it takes into account those who have quit looking for a job, while the unemployment rate – which typically generates more media attention — does not. The employment rate can also be a meaningful economic indicator for state policymakers because changes can affect “both sides of a state’s budget ledger,” according to the Pew analysis. That’s because more people working typically translates into more tax revenue , while a lower employment rate can lead to more demand for state-funded safety-net programs. In New Jersey, the employment rate for 25- to 54-year-olds was 80.25 percent in December 2007, but it had dropped to 77.3 percent by December 2009. It then fell to a low of 75.6 percent in March 2014, before eventually rising to 77.6 percent by the end of last year. That means New Jersey’s employment rate as of 2015, despite the improvement, is still trailing the pre-recession employment rate by 2.6 percentage points, according to Pew. The national employment rate as of the end of 2015, according to Pew, was 77.2 percent, still 2.7 percentage points below where it was in December 2007. The national rate dropped all the way down to a low of 75.06 percent in September 2011, before eventually rising back above 77 percent last year.
Two bills that seek to entice more New Jersey residents to stay in the state during their retirement years by offering new tax cuts were passed by a key Senate committee yesterday. And though the measures have no direct connection to New Jersey’s Transportation Trust Fund, Democratic sponsors are hoping their advancement now brings Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican, a big step closer to accepting a gas-tax increase that would renew the ailing trust fund. In fact, the bills seeking to phase out New Jersey’s estate tax and to ease state taxes on retirement income like pensions and 401(k) plans cleared the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on a bipartisan basis yesterday — a good sign for those hoping to see Christie and the Democrats ultimately hammer out a bipartisan deal to renew the trust fund before it runs out of cash at the end of June. But Christie later downplayed the link between the transportation-funding issue and the tax-cut legislation during a live radio show yesterday evening, fueling concerns that Democrats are moving the tax cuts to appease the governor with no guarantee that their efforts will result in a deal to renew the trust fund with a gas-tax increase. The push for a bipartisan deal on transportation funding comes as the state’s latest five-year spending plan for road, bridge, and rail-network improvements will expire on June 30. That’s because all of the revenue coming in from the trust fund’s primary source of cash, the state’s 14.5-cent gas tax, will soon be needed to pay down the fund’s significant debt, leaving no money for new projects after the end of June.
The fund also hit its legislatively authorized debt ceiling late last year. So far, Christie hasn’t said exactly how he plans to extend the fund, and he’s largely left the issue up to lawmakers to resolve as the June 30 deadline has drawn near. But he also said in his budget address last month that he is willing to work with Democrats who control the Legislature on a bipartisan basis to renew the trust fund, which pays for more than $3 billion in annual infrastructure improvements counting federal matching dollars. Christie also hasn’t firmly closed the door to the gas-tax hike that Democratic legislative leaders say is needed to maintain the fund. And it was Christie who loudly linked the transportation-funding issue to the estate tax back in September, while speaking to a group of business leaders in Morris County, saying any proposal to renew the Transportation Trust Fund should also provide New Jersey residents with “tax fairness.” While putting the bill up for the eventual 9-0 vote that advanced it out of the committee yesterday, Sarlo said he hopes Christie gets the message that lawmakers want a broader plan on transportation funding that incorporates the “tax fairness” favored by Christie and other Republicans. And the committee a little while later also easily passed a bill that would increase over three years the state income-tax exemptions for retirement income from pensions, 401(k) plans, annuities, and IRAs. The measure would eventually take exemptions that right now are $15,000 for single taxpayers and $20,000 for married couples filing jointly up to $75,000 for single taxpayers and $100,000 married couple filing jointly.
Gov. Chris Christie on Monday called the state Senate proposal to phase out New Jersey’s estate tax “incredibly timid,” and said there is still no deal to raise the state’s gas tax in order to pay for transportation projects. The Republican governor said no one should read into the new bipartisan estate tax proposal, which advanced out of committee earlier in the day, as being part of any accord to increase the gas tax. Christie had previously said he would not entertain the notion of boosting that tax unless there was “tax fairness” elsewhere — something one top Democrat said he hoped the new proposal would achieve. But the governor, speaking during New Jersey 101.5’s “Ask the Governor” radio show, criticized the legislation as not going far enough. “What I’ve seen of what they’re doing with the inheritance tax is incredibly timid and, if we were to ever get another democratic governor after me, would certainly be reversed. Certainly be reversed,” Christie said, referring incorrectly to a different tax that is not addressed in the bill. “Because they will be in a ravenous state for more of your money to spend.”
Christie said during his State of the State address in January that the tax should be ended but did not give a time frame. Host Eric Scott did not ask the governor to explain how he would improve the legislation. Christie again declined to offer any proposal to replenish the Transportation Trust Fund, saying it isn’t his problem to “fix” — even as he said he “fixed it” five years ago without raising taxes. If the Democrats want to raise the gas tax, Christie said, then a bill should be introduced in the Assembly where tax legislation is required to originate. Assembly speaker Vincent Prieto and Senate president Stephen Sweeney have both said they are close to being in agreement on a way to replenish the TTF and that they need to meet with Christie to work out a traditional three-way agreement. They say they have no interest in proposing a tax increase until everyone is on board since Christie could just veto the bill. Christie later added, after taking a call from a listener who suggested adding tolls to new highways, that he’s ‘anxious to see the Assembly speaker’s plan” for the trust fund.
South Jersey elected officials, community organizers, business leaders, and Atlantic City residents on Monday reprised their objections to a proposed resolution allowing for a statewide vote this November that would clear the way for a pair of billion-dollar casinos in North Jersey. The state Senate already passed a similar resolution in December on a 33-6 vote. State Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Wood-Ridge, who led the hour-long public hearing of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee on Monday afternoon, expressed confidence afterward that little has changed since then. “We’re on target for passage by April 1,” Sarlo said. Monday’s public hearing — as well as one scheduled for next week in the Assembly — became necessary because the two chambers did not resolve differences in language in the bills before the previous legislative session ended in January. That means that the Senate and Assembly each must pass the resolution by a supermajority of 60 percent to allow the referendum to go the voters this fall.
The Meadowlands and Jersey City are widely considered to be most likely sites for the new casinos, although bids could be made for locations as far south as New Brunswick as long as the proposed casinos would cost at least $1 billion and would be controlled by the operator of an existing Atlantic City casino. State Sen. Jim Whelan, D-Atlantic, warned that while Atlantic City enjoyed a nearly three-decade monopoly on casino gambling on the East Coast, officials in New York City would need “less than five years, probably,” before opening casinos there, joining casinos that have opened in the past decade in Pennsylvania and New York state. Therefore, he said, it would be wiser for the state to focus on helping Atlantic City recover instead of promoting the expansion of casino gambling to North Jersey. DiLorenzo said that a provision in the resolution to redirect up to $200 million annually in tax revenue from the new casinos to promote redevelopment in Atlantic City was “well-intentioned,” but that it would “do nothing” to counteract the negative impact of increased in-state casino competition.
Sarlo replied that the redevelopment money would produce major changes beneficial to Atlantic City — and would be administered by a “not-for-profit board of private interests,” and not by officials in Atlantic City or Atlantic County, or by any existing redevelopment agency. The committee also passed a bill amending a 2011 law that allows for a “boutique casino” to be built in Atlantic City with fewer than the legally-mandated minimum of 500 hotel rooms. The amendment could pave the way for the operators of the Chelsea Hotel to achieve their goal of adding casino gambling, since the new bill would allow for existing facilities to be considered in addition to new construction.
The state is once again pushing a bill that would ramp up how much electricity used in New Jersey must be produced by renewable energy, a step backers say is crucial to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions contributing to global warming. The vehicle would be a much-debated measure that would require 80 percent of the electricity in the state to come from renewable sources such as solar and wind by 2050, as well as other less polluting ways to create energy to power homes and businesses. Perhaps more important than voting the bill out of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee, advocates not only talked about why the state should pursue the goal, but also began discussing how it would achieve the target without saddling consumers with ever-rising energy bills. Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), the chairman of the committee, conceded the targets are aggressive, but “some places on the planet are well on the way to achieving it.’’ He echoed the need to act now to address global warming. “If you are still in the camp that thinks climate change isn’t happening, you have a severe IQ deficit,’’ he said.
The legislation (S-1707), similar to a bill approved by the Senate in the last session but never passed by the Assembly, has faced tough criticism from business interests, the state Division of Rate Counsel, and others over its impact on already high energy costs. Smith (D-Middlesex), the sponsor and chief driver of the bill, acknowledged those concerns when he urged those interested in the issue to begin discussing possible alternative ways to fund solar in New Jersey. Solar energy is projected to be a crucial factor in achieving the bill’s goal, but skeptics question whether the state can afford that route. Division of Rate Counsel Stefanie Brand last year told the committee the 80 percent goal could boost ratepayer exposure to higher costs of up to $2.8 billion, which would be on top of the $5 billion it could impose on them through the state’s current system of financing solar facilities. “Anything, but what we have now,’’ Rawlings said, noting it costs New Jersey four to five times what it costs New York to produce a kilowatt of electricity from a solar array.
The current model requires utility customers to ultimately pay for the electricity the owners of solar arrays produce. The system has put the state in the forefront of developing solar installations, but even solar developers say it might not be the best way to promote the technology. Smith directed Rawlings get together with Andrew Hendry, the president of the New Jersey Utilities Association, to begin discussions on resolving the issue. “We have to find a way to make the utility and renewable worlds compatible,’’ Smith said. With the growth of solar and other forms of so-called distribution generation — power systems that generate electricity locally rather than via a conventional centralized facility — utilities are seeing their top line erode because of a drop in energy use. The state also is banking on offshore wind farms to help drive a cleaner energy future, but that goal is far from being realized.