Political debate dominates third EDA incentive task force hearing

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

It was a political showdown at the Trenton War Memorial Tuesday. Critics of the tax incentive program far outnumbered supporters. The task force running the hearing has strong doubts about the main incentive program.

“Because portions of the Grow NJ statute were drafted to favor particular parties and disfavor others, we think there’s a very real question whether those portions of the statute are unconstitutional,” said Jim Walden, the task force’s chief counsel.

It boils down to a political battle between Democratic power broker George Norcross and Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy. The leadoff witness at Tuesday’s hearing, former state Sen. Ray Lesniak, argued that the Murphy-appointed task force lacks the right credentials.

“I can see that Gov. Murphy’s task force has no person with any economic development, or economic financial background, or a background in city planning, or smart growth,” said Lesniak.

At issue are tax breaks awarded to five companies along the Camden waterfront, all with connections to Norcross. Norcross allies, like Camden County Freeholder Director Lou Cappelli, argue that development has transformed the city.

“Over 800 jobs have been created for city residents. We are moving in the right direction,” said Cappelli.

Witness after witness painted an opposite picture.

“I have been watching this Camden rising phenomenon and all I’m really seeing through the eyes of my students is buildings that are going up. I’m not seeing their lives improving,” said Roberta Reavey, a Haddon Township resident.

“There are so many good people and good programs in Camden that never get any support because of this cancerous madness,” said Camden resident Keith Benson.

Other critics speak of corruption.

“This EDA situation is an elegant case study in New Jersey politics,” said Sue Altman, state director for New Jersey Working Families.

One of Norcross’ sharpest critics described a political machine in which his two brothers, a congressman and a lawyer, help achieve outcomes.

“He and his companies benefited from these incentives,” Altman said.

“Honestly, this is a joke. This task force was not necessary,” said Cappelli.

Norcross has sued to block the task force. He lost at the trial level but is appealing. The Legislature, meanwhile, has passed a bill to continue the current incentive programs for seven months. They expired last week. Murphy has vowed to veto that bill.

“My message today is simple: tax incentive programs work. They work,” said Gerald Keenan, executive vice president of New Jersey Alliance for Action.

So both sides of the issue got a good airing out Tuesday.

“I’m not sure how they have not seen it. It’s there. The progress is there. A lot of these folks are political allies of the governor,” said Cappelli.

“I see the political machine led by the unelected insurance broker George Norcross as one of the movers in South Jersey and it really disturbs me because I think he’s benefited from this lack of transparency that has been happening overall,” said the political director of NJ 11th for change, Mara Novak.

Task force members say they probably won’t meet again until the fall. That means the EDA controversy has plenty of time to play itself out.