For its first act last year, the business coalition Opportunity New Jersey says it helped to prevent constitutional amendments on a $15 minimum wage and guaranteeing pension contributions, slowed lawmakers’ push to approve paid sick leave, and helped enact tax cuts and a hike in the gas tax.

The collaborative is now preparing its second act – a comprehensive plan to make New Jersey more affordable, which it hopes to deliver to gubernatorial candidates by March as part of its plan to make such issues a key theme in this year’s elections.

Tom Bracken, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, says New Jersey needs candidates and a governor with a plan, not just proposals for plugging holes.

“In my 47 years in New Jersey, there has never been a plan for New Jersey. There’s never been a goal out there where we're saying the state is here, we have the opportunity to get to here. How do we get there? I’ve never seen one,” Bracken said.

“That’s what our ultimate goal is, to have that plan, then be able to sit with the Legislature and administration and help implement a plan that gets us out of this mess and gets us to someplace better,” he said.

Toward that end, the Opportunity New Jersey steering committee is starting to meet to assemble its own plan, which should be done over the next two months.

Michele Siekerka, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said it will be built around tax and regulatory reform, infrastructure investment, workforce development and job creation.

“It’s the GPS, if you will, toward affordability in the state of New Jersey,” Siekerka said.

“We can’t just continue to work on solving the known issues we have in front of us. That just gets us to a point of hopefully stability. We’ve got to get beyond stability. We’ve got to get to prosperity because the state is just – we’re basically ground to a halt,” Bracken said.

Bracken said it’s unacceptable that New Jersey ranks so poorly among the states in economic growth, tax burden and outmigration of residents.

“With all the resources we have in this state, we shouldn’t be 50 out of 50. We should be in the top 10. We’re 50 out of 50. It’s just disgusting,” Bracken said.

Siekerka said the reduction in the estate tax approved along with the hike in the gas tax will help New Jersey retain wealthy residents and owners of small businesses, and she said the gradual exemption of more retirement income from income taxes will slow the number of older residents who depart.

But she said policymakers need to address the state’s biggest outmigration group – millennials. The state spends among the most in the nation per pupil on K-12 education, then has the largest outflow of college students of any state. Once those students leave, many don’t return.

On top of that is the unaffordability of housing in the state, Siekerka said. She pointed to Asbury Park, saying one-bedroom apartments there that rented for $900 a month a few years ago are now around $1,500.

“Even if they’re graduating from college, what student can come out and afford $1,500? Stack on top of that your car insurance and your energy costs, on and on, that’s very challenging,” Siekerka said. “So we need to look at: Do we have a stock of housing for them in the state of New Jersey? No, I don’t think that we do.”

“When we talk about affordable housing, that has a connotation in New Jersey. We talk about workforce housing,” Siekerka said. “We need to get real about that. And where do millennials want to leave? They want to live in urban centers where they can get on a train because they don’t want to buy a car. They’re going to rent. They’re going to be mobile. We have to make sure we have the right infrastructure so we can meet their demands.”

Opportunity New Jersey was hatched after a 2015 business summit in Atlantic City – and particularly after promises of future meetings with legislative leaders didn’t materialize.

Bracken said lawmakers were initially wary of the effort but have come to realize it’s not meant to be confrontational or defeat lawmakers for re-election. The effort is issues-focused and doesn’t endorse candidates, though the individual business organizations can and often do.

However, Bracken and Siekerka said the state could benefit from a seismic election of its own.

“What happened nationally, which is just, ‘We’ve had enough, let’s shake it up, we’ve got to tear it down to the studs and rebuild’ – that’s what New Jersey needs.”

“We need a paradigm shift. We do,” Siekerka said. “We’ve got to do things a different way. We’re broken. I mean, the state’s broken.”


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com