Even as New Jersey awarded billions of dollars in tax credits in a bid to spur economic development, the state failed to hold companies accountable for the jobs and investments they promised, the state comptroller found in an audit released Wednesday.
The audit, ordered by Gov. Phil Murphy, found problems in the state agency that oversees tax incentives, including a program that steered more than $1.5 billion to companies that agreed to stay in or relocate to the long-struggling city of Camden.
For example, in a sampling of projects across the state, the comptroller’s office could not verify nearly 3,000 jobs the companies said they had created or retained.
In response to the audit, Murphy called for allowing the current incentive programs to expire this summer and replacing them with new tax breaks that are capped and closely monitored.
“We must have a program that is strategic and smart, in other words, the exact opposite of what we got,” Murphy said at a news conference Wednesday in Trenton.
The state overhauled its economic incentives program in 2013 with the passage of the Economic Opportunity Act, which was spearheaded by South Jersey Democrats and signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Christie.
Companies receive the tax breaks only if they meet these requirements, but Comptroller Philip Degnan found shortcomings in the state’s oversight in the audit released Wednesday.
The report did not identify any companies by name, but found broad problems with the Economic Development Authority (EDA), which administers the tax incentives. The agency lacked a process to analyze whether New Jersey actually received economic benefits from awarding incentives, the audit found, and did not adequately verify the job creation claimed by companies.
“These failures resulted in inaccurate representations of awardee performance to the stakeholders and taxpayers,” the audit report stated.
The retooled incentive program was central to efforts by Christie and South Jersey Democrats, led by insurance executive George E. Norcross III, to revitalize Camden.
Liberals and conservatives alike criticized the incentives as unchecked corporate welfare, and the program came under scrutiny as tax breaks were awarded to companies with strong political connections.
For example, in 2017 the state awarded $245 million in credits to three firms, including Norcross’ insurance brokerage, to build an office tower in Camden.
Grow NJ, the main job-creation program administered by EDA and used to incentivize development in Camden, is set to expire July 1.
Murphy, a Democrat, pledged during his 2017 campaign to curb tax breaks for big corporations. Even so, he supported the $7 billion tax-incentive package New Jersey offered Amazon in a bid to attract the e-commerce giant’s second headquarters to Newark.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Murphy criticized Christie for allowing $8 billion in tax incentives to be approved under his administration.
“One would hope that such a huge number would come with an equal level of internal controls designed to ensure that applicants lived up to their claims,” Murphy said. “We now know that they did not.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who championed the Economic Opportunity Act, said the law’s oversight requirements hadn’t been followed.
“That has to be rectified with any new incentive programs,” he said in a statement. “We will work with the administration to create replacement programs that address the same priorities of generating economic growth, creating and retaining jobs and expanding long-term opportunities.”
As of February 2018, EDA had approved 1,000 projects, with applicants projecting the creation of more than 160,000 jobs and $34 billion in capital investment, according to the audit. In exchange, the state offered $11 billion in tax-credit incentives. Not all of that amount has been distributed. The earliest projects began in 1996, when the first incentive program launched.
“With many of these programs reaching maturity and with a significant amount of incentives yet to be distributed through these programs, it is time to examine the manner in which these programs are administered and to make improvements to our monitoring efforts,” Degnan said in a statement.
Murphy pledged Wednesday to aggressively pursue details about hundreds of tax-incentive projects approved in the last several years to ensure that they met requirements to receive tax breaks.
“The public has a right to a full accounting as to why jobs that were promised were not created, and yet public money was still spent,” the governor said.
EDA also has programming problems that led to improperly awarding incentives and overpaying them, the audit found. For one incentive program -- different than GrowNJ -- the audit found that an unnamed company reported incorrect job data and received an overstated incentive. In total, the audit found that miscalculations led to $1.4 million in overpaid incentives; the state Attorney General’s Office has been contacted to help recover overpayments.