High unemployment. High taxes. And high budget deficits. Without question, Governor-elect Chris Christie's hands are full, and he is inheriting one of the most daunting challenges in the country.
Yet, behind every challenge — no matter how seemingly intractable —lies an opportunity, and this challenge is no exception. In fact, Christie, who was elected on a promise of economic reform, has several opportunities, ranging from an overhaul of the state tax system to a reform of state government.
There is one opportunity, however, that should be seized immediately: the opportunity to make our state the undisputed leader in the green technology revolution.
Simply stated, New Jersey should become the "sustainability state" — home to green investments, jobs, technology and services. We should be the incubator of green ideas about everything from energy efficiency in buildings — which account for about 40 percent of all energy usage in the United States — to energy efficiency in transportation. And we should have a tax structure that incentivizes sustainable businesses to move to New Jersey and create jobs in New Jersey.
My concern, however, is that there will be great pressure to put energy and other non-budget issues on the back burner — that there will be a single-minded focus on short-term budget challenges at the expense of longer term critical thinking and actions.
This would be shortsighted.
Many of these issues — including budget, education and business reform — are interconnected and should be pursued simultaneously. In fact, revitalizing New Jersey's business climate would help make possible all of the other efforts that the new administration wants to undertake. Done right, it would benefit our state's economy, workers and future.
And at the center of that revitalization could and should be sustainable businesses - profitable, job-creating engines of innovation.
New Jersey is familiar with this type of thinking. Some time ago, we created a home for many of the world's largest research-based pharmaceutical companies. Our tax structure. Our higher education system. Our political culture. Taken together, we created a business environment that promoted innovation, rewarded risk-taking and encouraged public-private partnerships.
But just as pharmaceuticals drove much of the economic growth of the last few decades, green technology and services have the opportunity to be that engine for the future. Solar panels. Wind turbines. LED lighting. The energy industry is busting at the seams with innovative companies seeking to make a profit while they make a difference.
We need to give them a home. New Jersey can and should own green.
To that end, the governor-elect should take some immediate steps:
- Sustainability transition team: Compile a group of big thinkers — from academia, business, government and the environmental community — to recommend ways in which the new administration should be best organized to take on this critical challenge.
- Sustainable tax incentives/grants: Develop a set of targeted tax incentives and grants that will attract sustainable companies and promote sustainable jobs and technology — incentives that will create real opportunities for the companies as well as for the communities in which they operate.
- Sustainable partnerships: Create a real, meaningful relationship between the energy industry and our colleges and universities. We have tremendous brain power in this state. Let's put it to good use.
Confronted with one of the worst economic crises in the history of the state, Christie has quickly begun to look for solutions to address New Jersey's ailing business climate. That's a good sign. And he has already reached out to a bipartisan, diverse group of political, business and academic leaders to help him put our state back on track. That's an even better sign.
Now, I hope that he takes this commitment to the next level, that he will seize the opportunity presented by innovative companies who need a welcome home to create immediate jobs in energy conservation and longer term growth in energy technology.
The challenge before our new governor is indeed great. Nobody disputes that. I would only suggest that the opportunity — the chance to really put New Jersey on the map in a profoundly important, meaningful way — is even greater.
Michael W. Kempner is the president and CEO of MWW Group, a public relations firm based in New Jersey. He writes regularly at his Straight Talk blog.