What’s the first step needed to improve New Jersey’s economy? Come up with an economic master plan. That’s the idea of Tom Bracken, the president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. He spoke with business correspondent Rhonda Schaffler.
Schaffler: Tom, you are talking about an economic master plan for New Jersey. What is that exactly?
Braken: I don’t know. I do know we need one. We have an energy master plan. I mean, energy is a big issue for New Jersey, there’s a master plan for that that has some detail to it, so that should be a template. But, you know, the state of New Jersey, we need to promote and expand our economy dramatically and you cannot do that without a plan. No company does that without a plan. We need some guiding principles and some guiding goals to put together to say where we are as an economy, where we want to be as an economy and then find a pathway to get there. And the only way to do that is with a plan that has a lot of good input, that has a lot of good support to it, and people use to guide legislation, economic development issues, all kinds of variety of issues.
Schaffler: Tom, you talked a lot about the economy and potential detrimental impacts in the weeks leading up to the state budget. Business lost in many ways: there’s a corporate business tax, there’s a tax on millionaires at a certain level. Not good for small business owners. I don’t want to say they weren’t listening to you, but the interests of business were not put front and center in the budget process. How do you make it different now? How do you convince lawmakers that we’ve got to look at policies to help the economy, which would then help the budget?
Braken: Rhonda, you have to start at ground zero. We have a fiscal dilemma in New Jersey. The new administration inherited a fiscal dilemma. They had to do something to make ends meet, to have a balanced budget, which is constitutionally mandated, so there had to be some give there. We knew that. A lot of things that were in the budget, maybe we weren’t totally supportive of, but we realized that this is something that had to be done this year to make the budget balanced. And as we’ve said, we knew it had to be done. We didn’t accept it. We knew it was a problem, but we are now over it. We have to put it in the rear view mirror. We have to not look backward, we have to look forward. Now is the time to take what we have, with a budget in place, and move forward with some kind of plan. So, we were not thrilled with everything that happened, but we knew the reality of what happened and now it’s time to take a different direction, not look backward, but look forward.
Schaffler: What can New Jersey use as a model when it develops this economic master plan? I look at the work that went into, say, the Amazon bid. There’s a lot of positives in New Jersey. We’ve got amazing industries here, whether it’s entrepreneurs, the pharmaceutical industry, tourism, we should be in better shape than other economies of other states.
Braken: Rhonda, we’re the most blessed state in the country with assets. The most blessed state in the country with the quality of the workforce, the affluence, the location. We are number one in all of those categories, and competitively we rank with any ranking magazines or organizations, anywhere from 46th to 50th in business competitiveness. We’re also the most unaffordable state and we also have the greatest out-migration. So, with all the assets we have, with the location we have, with all the affluence we have, the density of business, the density of population, we should be near the top and we are near the bottom. That’s why we have to do something. We have to do something dramatic here. We have to touch on some things that were untouchable before, and undo a lot of things that were holding us back.
Schaffler: Well, such as what? Let me just stop you right there. Pension reform, for instance?
Braken: Yes, absolutely. Pension reform is probably at the top of the heap. If you talk to anybody, we have to get that albatross off from around our neck.
Schaffler: Well, they seem reluctant to do that in Trenton, in terms of wholesale changes. And politically, that’s not very popular.
Braken: I have seen a lot more discussion about that in the last couple of months than I’ve ever seen. I know that there’s a report coming out that Senator Sweeney put together a coalition with — is headed by Paul Sarlo and Steve Oroho, that I think will be talking about that. The Healey Byrne report, which is now on the shelf getting dust after probably 3 years or more of being there, it all points to the same thing. That is a major initiative that could be undertaken that would help our pension situation dramatically.
Schaffler: What else should be on the table, do you think?
Braken: We have to make sure our infrastructure is stronger than it is.
Schaffler: Takes money.
Braken: Takes money. Well, we have a gas tax. We have a 23-cent increase in the gas tax. That has to be put to use. I know the administration right now is starting to authorize more projects. We have to take advantage, take advantage is probably the wrong word, but we have to take the money that we’ve gotten from the gas tax and put it to use. It’s matched by federal funds. Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy, so the infrastructure needs to be worked on. We need to maximize those dollars. It puts people to work, helps the economy, helps safety of people, there’s a lot of benefit to that.
Schaffler: Alright, we’ll look forward to hearing more about potentially what is in this master plan when the conversations begin. Tom Bracken, thanks so much for your time.
Braken: Thank you, Rhonda.