New Jersey taxpayers have $8M bill for tax break task force

The New Jersey State House is seen while undergoing renovations in Trenton, N.J., Monday, Aug. 5, 2019. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — The taxpayer tab for Gov. Phil Murphy's task force investigating corporate tax breaks has reached $8 million, according to invoices obtained by The Associated Press.

Murphy, a Democrat, set up the task force last year after two state reports raised concerns about how business tax breaks established under Republican Chris Christie were awarded.

New York-based Walden Macht & Haran and the Quinones Law firms are conducting the investigation on behalf of Ronald Chen, a former Rutgers Law School dean who chairs the task force.

The firms have billed the state $8 million. That's up from about $6.5 million in October.

The task force just last week issued its second report, which said the state agency awarding tax breaks was predisposed to grant incentives to businesses, sometimes.

The report also found the Economic Development Agency failed to adequately vet claims made by businesses about the likelihood companies would move jobs out of state, which was a key factor in awarding tax breaks.

The task force also said its investigation led to voluntary terminations of awards that saved the state $11 million.

In a statement, Murphy spokesman Darryl Isherwood defended the task force's work, saying that it has provided a “roadmap of pitfalls” to avoid in future tax break legislation.

“By any objective measure, the task force has saved taxpayer dollars," he said.

The tax credits in question were enacted under a 2013 bill, but they expired July 1. Murphy and lawmakers disagree over how to move forward. Murphy wants to limit how much is awarded annually, but legislators question whether that will put the state at a disadvantage compared with neighboring states.

Over the past year, the task force has made at least one criminal referral to law enforcement, though the details have not been revealed.

Its work has also captured the attention of Murphy and other officials.

At one hearing, a whistleblower testified that an unidentified firm she worked for said it was considering leaving the state in order to get credits when she knew the company had already decided to stay.

The task force publicized documents showing that firms connected with influential Democratic political powerbroker George Norcross gave inconsistent responses while applying for credits when asked whether they considered leaving the state, a key requirement in most cases for being awarded credits.

That led to Norcross to sue Murphy seeking to block the task force's first report, but a judge disagreed, and the report came out.

The report said special interests, particularly those linked to Norcross, helped write the legislation to benefit stakeholders, who later did benefit.

Norcross disputes the findings and said the task force's work contained misstatements and “mischaracterizations."