Business groups skeptical lawmakers will address affordability in new year

Daniel J. Munoz//December 14, 2021

Business groups skeptical lawmakers will address affordability in new year

Daniel J. Munoz//December 14, 2021

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Despite assurances from top lawmakers in both major parties of greater affordability and a pro-business agenda coming out of this year’s elections, some of the state’s largest business groups remain skeptical that elected leaders intend to follow through with those promises.

Instead, many bills being rushed through during the final month of lame duck go the opposite direction of those intended goals, these groups charge.

“Let’s not forget that on Election Day, there was a strong message given to everybody that affordability was a big issue for New Jersey,” Tom Bracken, who heads the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said during a remotely-held press conference on Dec. 14.

“This rare opportunity we have could be derailed by these lame duck legislation bills that are out there,” he continued.

Michele Siekerka, president and CEO, NJBIA addressed affordability during a Dec. 14 press conference.

Come Jan. 11, New Jersey is poised to see one of the biggest shifts of power in Trenton politics in a generation. Democrats are losing seven seats in the state Legislature, including that of powerful Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District.

Other major figures in both parties, meanwhile, are retiring – like Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg from Bergen County – or pursuing positions elsewhere in public life – like Union County’s Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, who’s reportedly eyeing a bid for Congress next year.

“When policies are rushed for the sake of getting it done, as is usually the definition of lame duck … unintended consequences are sure to rise,” added Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer at the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

A litany of measures were highlighted Tuesday by the two groups, along with the National Federal of Independent Businesses New Jersey chapter.

Bills, bills bills

One proposal, Assembly Bill 4630, heightens labor union requirements for retail and distribution centers when they contract with the state. Gov. Phil Murphy sent the bill back to the state Assembly last month, saying it could have an undue burden on smaller-sized employers, asking that the threshold for an affected business be raised from 10 to 20 employers. Lawmakers are once again considering the proposal.

Another measure business groups have taken issue with is Senate Bill 3667, which would codify several of Murphy’s clean energy goals into state law–meaning future governors would not be able to easily undo the targets from the 2019 Energy Master Plan. Several groups have cried foul about the push under those goals to phase out natural gas and the lack of any potential cost analysis for the proposal.

Assembly Bill 2418, another measure groups have decried, would establish a state Prescription Drug Affordability Board to rein in medication costs. Pharmaceutical groups like BioNJ have heavily panned the bill, though proponents like New Jersey Citizen Action contend that the board is vital to clamping down on spiraling prescription costs.

Other measures, like a bid to slow down warehouse expansion in New Jersey, could instead scare away businesses eyeing a move into the state, such as Amazon, Bracken said. Lawmakers and environmentalists contend that such measures are vital in order to preserve the state’s expanse of farmland and pristine natural beauty, rather than let it be overdeveloped.

Glass half full

At the same time, problems like hiring shortages affecting businesses since the late spring, and supply chain upheavals, only continue to hammer employers this holiday season, said Eileen Kean, New Jersey director for the NFIB, though not enough is being done by the state.

“We’ve all been in stores and we’ve seen the empty shelves,” she said on Tuesday.

Eileen Kean, New Jersey state director for the National Federation of Independent Business addressed affordability during a Dec. 14 press conference.

Bracken said the state could offer higher subsidies for its return-to-work bonuses, closer to $1,000 instead of the current $500.

Some added unemployment benefits are slated to run out this month, which Siekerka said could help reverse some of those hiring woes.

“We’ve had employers over the past six months reporting to [the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development] instances of people … not showing up for interviews or showing up for interviews and saying ‘pay me under the table or I can’t come back now, hire me when my unemployment is up’,” she said.

To be sure, there are still bills that can move forward in the next month that groups like the NJBIA, NFIB and NJ Chamber said on Tuesday could improve the state’s business climate.

Assembly Bill 6227, which was introduced just before this past weekend, would use federal pandemic-relief dollars to repay loans the state took out to pay unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 recession. As of now, those costs have been passed down to employers in the form of a series of tax increases that kicked in this October and will last another two years.

The state has given out $37 billion in unemployment benefits over the past nearly two years, most of it through the federal government, but $9 billion from loans and its own tab.

Tom Bracken, president and CEO, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce addressed affordability during a Dec. 14 press conference.

“That money could easily, and quite frankly with good justification, be used to repay that and take off the burden of the business community,” Bracken said.

Another proposal moving through committee drawing praise from several key business groups would create tax breaks and other exemptions for employers that spent money to adapt to the COVID-19 restrictions and reduced-capacity mandates of the past two years.

One measure, Senate Bill 3759, provides tax credits for wages that certain small businesses paid to employees to keep them on board over the course of the public health emergency.

Another duo of proposals would both allow employers to immediately deduct up to $150,000 on their taxes for the costs of complying with COVID-19 mandates and restrictions in 2020 and 2021, such as reduced capacity and social distancing, ventilation requirements, plexiglass and outdoor dining equipment. Senate Bill 4254 limits the tax exemption to businesses with up to 50 employees. Another measure – Senate Bill 3404 – would extend the tax exemption to any non-chain restaurant with up to 100 employees.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]