Try to contain your surprise — politicking is what stands in the way of New Jersey’s business growth.
It’s not as if people aren’t trying to do things to improve life for businesses in the state. It’s just that other people are trying to keep them from doing it. And this dichotomy has been battling it out since who-even-remembers.
For Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, this battle between political opponents has long strangled real business growth in the state and has had a neutralizing effect on its potential greatness. Bracken will discuss the fight to make New Jersey a better place to do business when he speaks at the MidJersey Chamber’s March luncheon “State of N.J. Business” panel on Thursday, March 12, at 11:30 a.m. at the Wyndham Garden Trenton. Joining Bracken will be state treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff and Robert Curley, South Jersey president of TD Bank. Cost: $55. Visit www.midjerseychamber.org.
Bracken, a 1969 graduate of Bucknell and native of Corry, Pennsylvania, began his career in banking fresh out of college. He joined First Trenton National Bank that year and stayed through its transition to New Jersey National Bank, CoreStates in the early 1990s, and later as it became First Union. By the time the bank became Wachovia, Bracken left, joining Sun Bancorp in 2001 and eventually becoming its New Jersey president.
Bracken first joined the New Jersey Chamber in 2005 as a board member. In 2008 he became an officer in TriState Capital Bank. He became president and CEO of the state chamber in 2011, and in 2014 was named chairman of ForwardNJ, a statewide coalition promoting investment in the state’s transportation infrastructure. Bracken’s wife, Suki, is a homemaker, and both of his children, a son and a daughter, have followed him into careers in finance.
New Jersey by the numbers. New Jersey is at once a great and terrible place to do business. National rankings by Forbes and CNBC from last year put New Jersey in the bottom 10 states for business, with CNBC citing economy and infrastructure (both were ranked 47th in the country, while cost of living ranked 44th) as the main reasons for the state’s low placement. The property tax issue is still a major ordeal to contend with, and Forbes attributes the cost of doing business here to much of the reason it ranks New Jersey as one of the last places you want to set up shop.
On the other hand, CNBC rates New Jersey as one of the most business-friendly states, while Forbes cites that the state’s position as the second-richest workforce — behind Maryland, and despite a five-year, 0.1 percent slip in gross state product — is mainly due to an extremely well-educated workforce.
This split personality is not lost on Bracken, who says that from the standpoint of location, demographics, and an educated labor pool, New Jersey is coiled for greatness. “You’d think we’d be in the top 10 places to do business,” Bracken says.
The problem with all this potential, Bracken says, boils down to this: “New Jersey is also the most politicized state in the union.”
Perhaps. There is, of course, no shortage of red tape here — did you know that New Jersey even has a Red Tape Commission?
As Bracken sees it, New Jersey has one very pro-business ally — the Republican Christie administration — and one anti-business opponent in the Democrat-controlled state Legislature. Bracken cites the governor’s efforts to improve the regulatory environment for businesses, to ease business taxes, and the amount of outreach the administration does as evidence of its business friendliness. Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, he says, is a frequent visitor to state chamber functions and to many other business events because she is trying to make sure the business community of New Jersey knows the governor’s office is trying to make the Garden State a better place for commerce.
And things actually started out pretty well. When Chris Christie took over the State House in 2010, “there was a lot of camaraderie on both sides of the aisle,” Bracken says. And Christie got a lot of notice for his Reagan-like ability to make political opponents cooperate.
And there’s your problem. Christie got too much notice too fast. Even before he was governor a full year, there was talk of Christie for the White House. The Democrat-controlled Legislature, says Bracken, didn’t want to see Christie become successful enough to be a legitimate presidential contender, and so started to “lob roadblocks in the way.”
It’s the economy, stupid. Politicking has left a bad taste in Bracken’s mouth, as well as the mouths of many in business in New Jersey, he says. “The very people criticizing the governor and the administration for no economic recovery or job creation are the same people passing legislation that is anti-business,” he says.
An example? Paid sick leave. The assembly-approved bill mandates that companies with 10 or more employees — full or part-time — allow workers to earn at least 72 hours of paid sick leave, while businesses with fewer than 10 employees must provide at least 40 hours. While proponents say the move is one of basic human decency, opponents say such a law would further sap businesses already reeling from the most recent minimum wage increase and leave small businesses with a real possibility of a part-time worker being able to use up to 18 days of sick leave in a year. Bracken simply calls the measure “totally anti-business.”
He does the same for the ever-present, always-possible “millionaire’s tax” idea. “We have high wealth migration as it is,” Bracken says. “Business owners would be mostly affected by that, and that would further affect the business environment.”
The answer, of course is simple: New Jersey needs more money. The best way to get it, Bracken says, is job creation — but businesses need to feel as if they can add jobs without being unduly burdened by bureaucracy.
“New Jersey has 300,000 businesses,” Bracken says. “If just 10 percent of those businesses could add just one new job a year, that’s 30,000 new jobs. That’s not insurmountable. There should be every possible thing being done to create jobs.”
To get to this promised land, Bracken says lawmakers need to listen to what the business community is telling them. “It’s Business Development 101,” he says. “You have to pay attention to your customers.”