Economic Opportunity Act passes in Senate

TRENTON – The Senate passed a controversial economic tax incentive bill today.

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

Lawmakers said that among other things, the bill will help repurpose shuttered hospital sites under certain conditions, 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 ever 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.

But supporters said this bill brings efficiency and coordination to the state’s job attraction and retention efforts, while phasing out some controversial programs such as the Urban Transit Hub Tax Credit that had drawn fire by some as a corporate giveaway.

Democratic Sen. Bob Smith lauded good things in the bill, but said as amended it threatens the Highlands’ environmentally sensitive areas. “We’re not supposed to be savaging the environment,” he said.

It rescinds an executive order by former Gov. Kean that said when agencies have major projects there needs to be an environmental review. There was no need for that to be rescinded, Smith said.

Sen. Steve Oroho said that economic development needs to be able to occur throughout the state and he said the principles of the Highlands Act continue to be recognized.

And fellow Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck said that by and large the bill is positive. But she raised again an issue regarding payment of prevailing wages in circumstances involving multitenant buildings in which just one tenant is taking advantage of a tax incentive program. But she supported the bill in general.

And Republican Sen. Joe Kyrillos said the senators need to look at the larger picture: a state economy that has improved but still has a lot of people jobless.

“In the marketplace right now there are real deals going on,’’ he said, “they are looking at us’’ and wondering whether to come to or stay in New Jersey. “They are waiting for this bill to happen.”

Democratic Sen. Raymond Lesniak said this bill provides hundreds of millions of dollars in tax credits to create jobs, and it provides service workers such as janitors the same benefits service workers in a building such as the Statehouse receive.

It passed in the Senate 26-10. Economic Opportunity Act passes in Senate