Assembly passes Economic Opportunity Act

TRENTON – An economic tax incentive bill that passed once in the Assembly, then was amended and passed Thursday in the Senate, was amended again in the Assembly. The latest amended version passed 66-5 late Thursday.

At issue are environmental protections that were stripped from the original Assembly version, and partially restored this evening.

S2583/A3680 is an expansive Economic Opportunity Act designed to streamline five economic development programs into two and enhance their outreach.

But environmentalists as well as Senate Environment Committee Chair Sen. Bob Smith early in the day decried the amended bill that was passed in the Senate as bad for sensitive areas such as the Highlands and the Pinelands.

The original bill passed in the Assembly a while ago was friendlier to environmental concerns, the supporters said.

Lawmakers who support the bill said that among other things, the bill will help repurpose shuttered hospital sites, prevent job loss, especially in Southern New Jersey, and target tax incentives for employers in some poverty-ridden areas and in and around transportation hubs.

However, environmental opponents warn that sensitive areas in the Highlands and Pinelands and elsewhere will be even more vulnerable to development. “It is the biggest sell-out of open space in the state’s history,’’ Jeff Tittel of the Sierra Club said.

The latest version that was being considered by the Assembly today, after negotiations behind closed doors, removed a sentence troubling to environmental advocates. That clause said that economic programs under this bill would have been exempt from an executive order issued in 1989 by then-Gov. Thomas Kean that said such programs would have to undergo an environmental assessment first.

But environmental critics of the Senate version of the legislation said sections of the bill also loosened protections in the Highlands. The version passed late Thursday in the Assembly tightened those protections to a degree.

The bill now has to go back to the Senate for another vote at some point.

Assemblyman and sponsor Albert Coutinho, who suffered a heart attack earlier in the week, received a lengthy round of applause and bipartisan congratulations for the work he put into the bill. Some colleagues had implored him not to attend today out of concern for his health but he showed up.

“This will put tens of thousands of people back to work,” he said of the bill.

However, Assemblyman Joe Cryan had offered an amendment for the 20th District he represents on one project.  He sought to amend the bill over a project that will see three eight-story dorms built 200 feet from residential homes, and wanted that public/private partnership effort eliminated from coverage in this bill, but his motion failed by a 56-8 vote.

“People who see sunlight today will no longer have it,’’ he said before the vote was taken.

Assembly passes Economic Opportunity Act