The Christie Administration has made liberal use of the state’s Economic Development Authority grant program to spur economic development around the state, especially in urban centers like Newark, Jersey City and – again, this week – Camden, where the NBA’s 76ers franchise will take advantage of more than $80 million in tax breaks to locate its practice facilities and offices to Camden.
“It’s not only good because it’ll be additional tax revenue and other things and business for Camden,” said Christie this week, “But also for the image of the city of Camden, to show that the Philadelphia 76ers, one of the major sports teams in the region has enough confidence in the strides that we’re talking about making here that they are willing to invest in the city of Camden is a good thing for Camden and if it’s a good thing for Camden, it’s good for New Jersey.”
The Sixers say they’ll invest their own $80 million in the project, which will create, they say, 50 new jobs, mostly in sales and marketing. But in a state where an $800 million budget gap has forced the governor to cut payments to the employee pension fund, some lawmakers – Republicans, no less – question the fiscal responsibility of such a hefty investment. Republican Senator Mike Doherty’s statement on the plan was very blunt.
“How can New Jersey not make this year’s full pension payment, but the state government can find an extra $82 million for a basketball practice facility,” asked Doherty in a statement this week.
Democrats have celebrated the EDA’s incentive program. They helped expand it late last year. It’s helped pay for expansion of Cooper Medical in south Jersey, where Senate President Steve Sweeney is from, and up north it’s helped provide an extra incentive for companies like Goya to build a new world headquarters in Jersey and for Panasonic to relocate to Downtown Newark. Critics say the benefits are often overstated. Republican Jay Webber accused the state of picking the pocket of the working man.
“We shouldn’t be providing these massive subsidies to people who are doing incredibly well,” he said. “These corporate subsidies, this corporate welfare, you’re taxing the guy who works at the gas station; you’re taxing the school teacher; you’re taxing the cop. You’re taking their money and you’re sticking it in the pocket of the owners of the 76ers.”
Admittedly, Webber is in the minority, although he says that in the austere budget environment of Trenton nowadays, more lawmakers are starting to question the giveaways. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick is not one of them.
“Well for 10 years, this government – and at that point it was run by the Democrats – in my judgment, made this an anti-business environment. We have to begin to invite business in and get business in the door because without business here we’re going to continue to suffer.”
As he often does, the governor dismissed criticism of his tax incentive program. “What’s your plan” he often asks, content in knowing that while his Democratic allies continue to benefit politically from them, no one is likely to propose an alternative.