Earlier this month, the New Jersey state legislature approved a 23-cent-per-gallon hike in the gas tax to fund the state’s transportation fund. The tax hike for motorists came along with a tax break for the state’s wealthiest residents in the form of the elimination of the estate tax, along with a few minor breaks for lower income taxpayers.
For Tom Bracken, chair of the pro-business group Opportunity NJ, this was great news. It was also at least partly the result of a long lobbying effort by his group. Both parts of the deal — funding much needed infrastructure repairs and improvements, and a tax cut for people with large estates to give away — were positive outcomes from his point of view.
“We got the TTF [Transportation Trust Fund] funded and we got the estate tax eliminated, both of which are going to be transformational in New Jersey,” he said. “We’re very proud of getting all that done. Yes, there was a gas tax increase, but we’ve been fighting about this for almost five years. There was almost no solution we could find on a permanent basis other than gas taxes.”
Another “win” for the group was the shelving of a constitutional amendment that would have forced the state of New Jersey to pay its obligations to the state workers’ pension fund.
“We had a very extensive lobbying effort,” Bracken says. “We talked to many people and we presented our case, and talked about how it was going to be very detrimental to the budget flexibility for any future governor.”
Bracken, who is also the CEO of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, founded the group in February, rallying around the pension issue (U.S. 1, February 24). Currently the organization has no permanent staff and is managed by a 16-member board that includes himself, co-chair Michele Siekerka of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, and board members from other trade groups including Ralph Thomas, CEO of the New Jersey CPA Association, Debbie Hart, CEO of BioNJ, and others.
With more legislative battles on the horizon, Bracken is trying to gather more support for the group from the business community. Bracken, together with Siekerka, will speak at a MidJersey Chamber of Commerce event on Thursday, October 27, at 8 a.m. at the Old York Country Club in Chesterfield. The “Make New Jersey Affordable” breakfast, being held in conjunction with the Burlington Regional Chamber of Commerce, costs $25. For more information, visit www.midjerseychamber.org or call 609-689-9960.
Bracken said now that the TTF has been funded and the pension debate shelved for the moment, he is focusing on several new efforts. Governor Chris Christie recently vetoed a bill that would have raised the minimum wage from $8.44 to $15 an hour, and Democratic lawmakers plan to reintroduce the measure as a constitutional amendment. In 2013 a similar amendment passed raising it nominally, from $8.25, and including an increase tied to inflation.
Bracken says the groups he represents are opposed to the $15 minimum wage, which is backed by labor and anti-poverty groups and Democratic politicians. “Nobody in our coalition is against the minimum wage going up,” he says. “It’s just that we do not need it embedded in our constitution with a fixed dollar amount. There’s got to be a better way to find a solution.”
Asked what the minimum wage should be, Bracken said he didn’t know. “It’s not $8.44 and it’s not $15.”
Another goal is to promote a ballot question that would require the state to use the gas tax money exclusively for transportation, and not divert it to the general fund. “Infrastructure is the foundation of our economy,” Bracken said.
He also wanted to make sure that lawmakers who voted for the bill are praised for their support of the gas tax increase. “This will bode well for the future of New Jersey to get this done, and there were many legislators that had the courage and the foresight to vote yes for this package of bills,” he said. “A lot of them are being criticized for doing that, and they don’t get enough credit. We give them credit for having the courage to vote yes, and helping shape the future of New Jersey.”
The gas tax package has received criticism for including tax cuts that hinder the ability of an already hard pressed state government to meet its obligations, and especially for how the cuts affect the related issue of pension contributions. Bracken defended both the estate tax cut, and the group’s opposition to the pension amendment. He said the TTF bill would free up some general fund revenue that was going towards transportation, and said the estate tax cut would have a positive effect on the economy.
“The estate tax elimination is going to keep people here as citizens paying taxes and not moving to another state,” he said. “It might also bring back some people who left the state. The saying goes, ‘I can afford to live here, but I can’t afford to die here.’” He also pointed out the elimination of the estate tax does not take effect until 2018, giving lawmakers time to find a way to fill the gap.
As for the pension, he said that a constitutional amendment as the wrong way to go. “Although we do support making sure the pensioners are treated fairly and the promises that have been made to them are being kept, there is a much better way to resolve the issue than putting it in the constitution.” He said other measures could be taken, including making contributions by cutting back on health benefits for state workers.
Bracken has been head of the state Chamber of Commerce since 2011, a job he took after a long banking career. The son of a funeral home owner father and a homemaker mother, Bracken got his start in banking shortly after graduating from Bucknell University in 1969. He worked for First Trenton National Bank and its successors for 35 years, leaving when First Union merged with Wachovia. He joined Sun Bancorp as CEO in 2001, leaving that job in 2007 to lead TriState Capital’s New Jersey operations.
Under Bracken’s leadership, Opportunity NJ is avoiding the contentious presidential election to focus on state issues, and is now eyeing the upcoming gubernatorial election. Whatever the race ends up being, Bracken plans for his group to be a powerful force in influencing it. “I’ve been in New Jersey for 47 years, and I’ve never seen a coalition this strong,” he said. “It was put together to have a voice, and we have a voice, and now we have to make sure to use that voice appropriately.