Mr. Murphy’s move toward providing cash through public-private partnerships, rather than offering more traditional tax incentives to lure new business, comes as New Jersey struggles to develop homegrown companies. While New Jersey was among the top five states for venture capital investment a decade ago, it has fallen to 15th.
“We’ve had a very sort of blunt-instrument, one-size-fits-all, big-company-focused tax incentive program that was our whole strategy,” Mr. Murphy said in an interview. “And almost nothing toward the start-up community.”
The proposal is both unusual and routine: States often try to incentivize new companies to lay down roots, often with mixed results. But directly investing in start-ups carries additional risks. The companies could fail, and New Jersey would lose much-needed tax revenue. The private firms also could choose not to share their most lucrative opportunities with the state.
New Jersey has also recently seen its younger generations flee the state, limiting the talent pool that is vital to start-ups.
And this being New Jersey, putting state money into private companies has the potential to lead to political favoritism or corruption.
“This is going to have to be very transparent process,” Mr. Murphy said.
What’s the plan?
The proposal calls for raising $500 million over five years to create the New Jersey Innovation Evergreen Fund. About $250 million would be generated through an auction of tax credits to New Jersey corporations and the other half would come from matching funds from private venture capital firms.
Venture capital is among the riskiest of asset classes, and directly involving state funds could lead to losses. But Mr. Murphy said the current tax incentive plan was not working.
“I look at the results for what we’ve gotten back, and we’re spending a billion dollars per year” and still falling behind, Mr. Murphy said, referring to current tax incentives. “We’re trying to jump-start industries that have been in our sweet spots forever. Life science, advance manufacturing, biotech, to pick a few.”
Where will the money come from?
The governor, through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority, plans to auction off $60 million worth of tax credits every year for five years to major companies with tax liabilities in New Jersey.
The governor’s model predicts that the tax credits will sell for roughly 90 cents on the dollar, giving some of New Jersey’s major companies a tax break. That auction money — which the authority estimates will be about $250 million — would fund the program. This, of course, means the state would be diverting tax revenue into the new fund.
Through a dollar-for-dollar match from private-industry partners, the state hopes to build a fund of $500 million.
This type of fund is more useful to entrepreneurs than traditional tax breaks, Mr. Murphy said.
“Tax incentives for start-ups is a non sequitur because they don’t have any profits,” Mr. Murphy said. “So there’s nothing to tax.”
Can Mr. Murphy just do this?
The E.D.A. is under Mr. Murphy’s control, enabling him to create the New Jersey Innovation Evergreen Fund without the approval of another branch of government.
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But auctioning tax credits would require legislative approval. Mr. Murphy said on Friday that he had “already begun those conversations.”
Stephen M. Sweeney, the Senate president, did not return requests for comment.
The two men have had a checkered legislative record since Mr. Murphy became governor in January. Working together, they passed some progressive bills on issues like voting rights, immigration and the environment, but they disagreed bitterly over the so-called millionaire’s tax, leading to a fight that nearly shut down the government.
Still, Mr. Murphy said he is “pretty optimistic, actually” that he will have the needed legislative support.
Will the fund compete with major venture capital firms?
No. New Jersey is looking to partner with the firms.
The state does not want to be solely responsible for vetting pitches and business plans. Instead, it would partner with a venture capital firm once that firm had decided to invest.
If, for example, an entrepreneur is seeking $20 million to launch a product and finds a venture capital firm willing to invest, the firm can then request that the state split the cost. The goal, according to the governor’s office, is to minimize the private company’s risk while offering an incentive to provide funding to start-ups in New Jersey.
Mr. Murphy said he has not spoken to any venture capital firms yet.
Chris Sugden, a managing partner at Edison Partners, a New Jersey-based venture capital firm, said he liked the idea.
“Having the New Jersey program come in to put 50 percent of the bucks to match it, that’s pretty attractive,” Mr. Sugden said.
But, he added, the wheels of government and the speed of venture capital do not always move in sync.
“This market moves fast,” Mr. Sugden said. “The best deals — you’ve got to be able to move fast. And that’s how I’ve shared it. I understand the desire to make sure the money is invested in New Jersey, but you also don’t want guys in my business to be missing deals.”
I have a start-up. I want cash. What’s the catch?
Any company receiving investments from New Jersey will need to be based in the state.
“That’s the only ‘must’ with this plan,” Mr. Murphy said.
But restrictions in the venture capital world can be problematic, said Ian Hathaway, the research director at the Center for American Entrepreneurship, which studies start-ups.
“You start getting into problems when you put restrictions on it, because if I’m a top-tier investor, why do I even want to deal with that?” he said.
Mr. Hathaway said government programs designed to spur start-up growth need to “get their house in order first.”
That, he said, ranges from “making sure you have favorable capital gains tax policies” to more indirect issues.
“Like what is the quality of life in New Jersey for well-educated professionals who have the option to live somewhere else?” Mr. Hathaway said.
New Jersey ranked 50th in the 2019 State Business Tax Climate Index issued by the Tax Foundation, a conservative think tank.
“There’s a difference between making it easier for companies that are already in the state to raise venture capital,” Mr. Hathaway said. “It’s quite another to say: Will people pick up and move to New Jersey because there’s more capital available?”
Nick Corasaniti is a New Jersey-based correspondent, covering the politics, policy, people, trains, beaches and eccentricities that give the Garden State its charm. A New Jersey native, he previously covered presidential campaigns for The Times.