Controversial tax incentive programs administered by the state Economic Development Authority rarely came up during a press conference held by Camden’s political and business leaders, as well as two former governors.
Most of the speakers — including Mayor Frank Moran, former Gov. John Corzine and American Water President and CEO Susan Story — talked around the issue, touting Camden’s growth while largely steering clear of the EDA programs that are at the center of a growing feud between Gov. Phil Murphy and South Jersey kingmaker George Norcross.
Former Gov. Jim Florio, the event’s final speaker, was the only one to acknowledge the spat.
“These people here from the press are not here because we are all looking nice and sounding nice,” Florio said. “I think we know they’re there because of a controversy is taking place now, and it’s important for us to address the controversy and get beyond it, because the fact of the matter is there have been criticisms.”
An audit by state Comptroller Philip Degnan released earlier this year found holes in the EDA’s oversight of its tax programs, which have disbursed millions of dollars in tax incentives to convince firms to move or keep jobs in the state.
A task force convened by Murphy to investigate abuses of the authority’s programs earlier this month pointed to oddities in applications filed by four companies, including Cooper Health Services, with ties to Norcross.
Florio said that, while abuses of the EDA’s programs ought to be investigated, parties on either side of the conflict should be wary of prematurely leveling criticisms that could slow, or even reverse, investments in cities like Camden.
“I think it’s important though that we get facts out, facts that tell us what the reality is, because if someone did something inappropriate, they should be called to account. If someone did something illegal, they should be pursued under the law,” Florio said. “What we can’t be having is defamation by anecdote, defamation by whispering, whispering and rumors and stories as to what might be the case.”
At its second hearing, the task force revealed tax incentive applications by Cooper and three other Norcross-connected firms that appeared to have falsely suggested the firms were considering moving jobs to Philadelphia.
The programs at the center of the EDA controversy are scheduled to sunset in July.
After the audit was published in January, Murphy began pushing a set of replacement programs that he said would prevent abuses that some claim have plagued programs like Grow NJ, though those efforts have largely been sidelined as the controversy over tax incentives has blossomed into the state’s foremost political feud.
Since the feud began escalating at the start of May, Senate President Steve Sweeney, a childhood friend of Norcross, skipped a meeting between Murphy and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin on marijuana legalization and refused to rule out mounting a primary challenge to the governor in 2021.
Florio doesn’t want to see New Jersey shutter its tax incentive programs completely.
Accountability was the main issue, he said, adding that the programs have been pivotal to the resurgence of cities like Camden.
“Tax credits, by the way, those types of mechanisms are not inherently good or inherently bad,” Florio said. “They’re tools, tools which in the hands of competent people, honest people, capable people are able to do great things. The great things we’ve seen here in Camden in large measure are a result of those tools being used effectively.”