On March 6, 15 intrepid N.J. tech, pharmaceutical and clean energy tech company representatives, and the accountants and lawyers who support them, traveled to Washington, D.C., as part of the New Jersey Tech Council’s (NJTC) 14th annual Tech Trek. The goal, as always, was to “raise N.J. technology sectors’ visibility to our officials in Washington,” Maxine Ballen, NJTC president and CEO, said. “We want them to understand and value what we represent and how important we are to the future of this country and its economy.”
“You have everyone else going to D.C. to lobby, from the travel industry to the National Rifle Association. I want technology to be front and center in our representatives’ minds. By meeting with us every year, year after year, believe me, elected officials remember us,” she added.
The NJTC members who made the trek found a N.J. House of Representatives delegation mourning the loss of Rep. Donald Payne (10th Congressional District), who had passed away that same day. The NJTC trekkers were also challenged by the extra security at the Capitol, caused by the visit that day of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Nevertheless, the contingent managed to meet with many of N.J.’s representatives, including Sen. Robert Menendez and a legislative assistant from Sen. Frank Lautenberg’s office. The group met in person with Reps. Frank LoBiondo (2nd District), Jon Runyan (3rd District), Chris Smith (4th District), Scott Garrett (5th District), Leonard Lance (7th District) and Rush Holt (12th District). They also saw Bill Pascrell, Jr.’s (8th District) legislative assistant, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen’s (11th District) senior legislative assistant and Rep. Albio Sires’s (13th District) chief of staff.
While the general consensus among NJTC members who made the trip was that it was well-worthwhile for both access to power and networking opportunities, Ballen noted that this year, more than any other, she found elected officials who were frustrated by the lack of movement of legislation through Congress.
The Tech Trek started out Monday evening, when the NJTC representatives networked with their counterparts from individual chapters of the Technology Councils of North America (TECNA) and CompTIA, the IT industry association, to help develop an agenda and talking points before their scheduled meetings. The next morning Rep. Holt addressed the group, and it also heard presentations by the Small Business Administration, CompTIA and Senate and House staff, which Govi Rao, president and CEO of Noveda Technologies (Branchburg) and NJTC’s new chairman, called “extremely educational and informative.”
Ballen noted that the NJTC contingent, the largest of the groups, carried its own agenda to the N.J. delegation. (A complete list of talking points can be found here.) At the top of the list: championing the small and medium business (SMB) entrepreneur’s needs. SMBs employ more than 50 percent of the country’s workforce and hire 40 percent of high-tech workers, Ballen pointed out.
Ballen said the group asked its representatives to support the IPO On-Ramp Bill and the Reopening American Capital Markets Act, among others. The bills were going to hit the Senate that week and had already passed the House. Passing these measures would have a big impact on small business’s opportunities to realize infusions of capital, Ballen said, and there will be increased incentives for people who want to invest in small- and medium-sized companies. Under the bills, angel investments will be treated more favorably, reducing the investor’s tax burden, she added.
Rep. Garrett played a leading role in bringing that whole set of bills, known as the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act, to the House floor, Ballen said. “We were really pleased to spend time with him and let him know how thrilled we were that he is an architect of this set of legislation, which will have so significant an impact on the entire SMB tech sector.” The bills were to “hit the Senate soon and we really lobbied hard with Sen. Menendez personally and with Sen. Lautenberg’s staff, to let them know how important it was” to support the bills.
Each participant was able to follow up on issues of particular interest to him or her. Noveda’s Rao said that while every discussion was enlightening, “I very much enjoyed the dialogue with Sen. Menendez, whom I believe understood the issues we were highlighting and immediately asked his staff to follow up on key ones, like legislation in energy efficiency.”
Immigration reform was on the minds of several members as they spoke to their representatives. They were concerned about the H-1B visa situation, including the ceilings on these visas and the timeline issues that must be addressed to ensure workers are able to get into the U.S. in a timely fashion. Several NJTC members discussed how they had extended visas to workers from abroad but couldn’t get them into the U.S. in time for a project.
John Gregg, CEO of LifeQual Pharmaceuticals (Princeton), a biotech and pharmaceutical company, was particularly happy to have had the ear of members of Congress and senators about legislation affecting his firm. He spoke to them in favor of the GAIN (Generating Antibiotic Incentives Now)] act, which focuses on incentives for developing new antibiotics. “I think the response was very positive. They were actually hearing some of the legislation two days later, and it gave us a good sense of what we needed to do, whom we needed to talk to and what our next steps would be.” By networking with the other NJTC members on the trip, Gregg found a credible way to gain introductions to the people he needed reach.
The trip highlight for Princeton Financial Systems (Princeton) vice president of sales Stephen Chance was meeting with Rep. Smith. “He granted the NJTC plenty of time to discuss the organization’s needs. Given his effectiveness at moving legislation through Congress, it was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with such an impactful representative.”
Mark Waters, regional sales manager for Gehrlicher Solar America (Springfield), remarked that he was pleased to be introduced to Rep. LoBiondo’s aide Rachael Bohlander, whose job focuses on energy issues. Waters added that in general, it was helpful to listen to the N.J. delegation and understand that overall no energy legislation would be passed until after the election. “The challenge for us is that the majority of what goes on is done at the state level, not at the federal level,” he said. So while the trip was beneficial, it would probably have been more useful for his company to hold a coordinated meeting to understand what is happening at the N.J. level, he noted.
Ballen added that every year she raises the hope that Congress will make the R & D tax credit permanent, and this year was no exception. “To me it feels like the movie ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” she said, but this year some people she spoke to held out hope that this might be dealt with after the election.