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Panel probing New Jersey’s tax credit programs holds 2nd hearing

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NEWARK -

A task force investigating New Jersey's multibillion-dollar business tax incentive programs held its second public hearing Thursday.

Gov. Phil Murphy created the task force this year after a state comptroller's audit showed the state authority that oversees the programs failed in some cases to verify that businesses met required benchmarks.

The hearing comes a day after reports by the New York Times and WNYC raised questions about how the tax-credit legislation was written and then doled out in Camden.

The reports led Murphy to suggest a "total revamp" of the programs overseen by the Economic Development Authority is needed.

Former state Sen. Ray Lesniak says that he feels caught in the middle of the current debate. He was the legislator who sponsored the 2013 Economic Opportunity Act, which expanded the state's tax incentive programs.

RELATED: New Jersey attorney general probes tax incentive programs after audit 
RELATED: Audit faults NJ agency for lack of tax credit oversight 

“This is a political feud. When the discussion should be about the need for tax credits and how to administer them effectively,” Lesniak says.

Murphy has criticized programs enacted under his predecessor, former Gov. Chris Christie. Those programs expire June 30. Murphy says he wants to cap how much the state awards in credits.

The WNYC report found that two-thirds of the $1.6 billion in tax breaks went to companies that said they were relocating to Camden, went to companies with links to George Norcross, a longtime Democratic powerbroker who holds no elected office.

Norcross said in a statement, “The fact that private investment is returning to Camden is no accident — it was planned and fought for."

Critics of the 2013 law say that sections of it appear to specifically benefit certain companies. But Lesniak says that this was the purpose of the law.

“That's why I tailored the tax incentive for the Jersey Gardens Mall. That's why we tailored Panasonic. They have to be tailored. We can't compete with other states. It's not possible. We're a high cost of doing business state. Yes, they're tailored to attract companies that would go elsewhere,” he says.

The state task force made one criminal referral for unregistered lobbying. A member of the panel said Wednesday that companies which made false statements in their applications for tax credits could have violated federal mail and wire fraud laws.

The Associated Press wire services contributed to this report.

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