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Rekindling tax break controversy, George Norcross publicly defends incentives

Greeted by throngs of vocal protesters, South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross told legislators at the Statehouse in Trenton on Monday that the state’s generous tax incentive program has succeeded in revitalizing distressed areas, particularly Camden.

The controversial insurance executive testified that, despite what critics say, Camden has turned a corner, in large part due to investment spurred by state tax breaks.

“Some are against everything and for nothing, except mom, apple pie, and the American flag,” Norcross said in a rare public appearance. “The facts in Camden speak for themselves: unemployment rate, crime rate at 50-year low, schools, graduation rates … things are getting better.”

But critics — some of whom chanted “take down King George” ahead of his scheduled testimony — suggest that Norcross defends the programs because he benefits from them. Opponents have claimed that Norcross, who has never held elected office, uses his deep connections in government to enrich himself and others.

His insurance firm, Conner Strong & Buckelew, received an $86 million tax incentive to relocate to Camden. Cooper University Hospital, where Norcross serves as chairman of the board of trustees, also received an award to stay in the city.

An investigation by ProPublica and WNYC found that Norcross and his allies received $1.1 billion in tax breaks from the state.

Yet Norcross maintains that he has invested more in Camden than he has gotten back, and that he is interested only in turning around the distressed city.

“Nothing would have occurred in Camden without these tax incentive programs,” he said. “They did precisely what they were designed [to do] by the legislature and the governor.”

It comes as a state task force convened by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat, continues to look into the state’s now-expired corporate tax incentive programs. The task force has raised questions about applications submitted by Conner Strong & Buckelew and other firms tied to Norcross.

Norcross unsuccessfully sued to shut down the task force, which he claimed was unconstitutional.

Debate continues to rage over New Jersey’s tax incentive programs. On one side, Gov. Murphy and community activists claim that the program, created under former Republican Gov. Chris Christie, was too generous and lacked oversight. On the other, Norcross and his South Jersey allies in the legislature, such as state Sen. Pres. Steve Sweeney, claim that the previous system helped revitalize poor communities that struggled to attract outside investment.

Monday’s raucous hearing, which included community activists critical of the program as well as union members supportive of it, highlighted how the issue has come into public view.

New Jersey State Troopers removed several protesters who shouted over people testifying during the hearing. Police also physically removed New Jersey Working Families state director Sue Altman, who fell during the incident. She said she was issued a citation for disorderly conduct.