AP NEWS

Public banker says support is key for state-run bank

November 23, 2019 GMT

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy wants the state to become the second state with a public bank, and if it has a chance at succeeding, he’ll need to get residents’ support and ensure the bank is competing with private banks, said the head of the country’s only public bank.

Eric Hardmeyer, the president and CEO of the century-old Bank of North Dakota, said in an interview that he’s been watching the conversation about New Jersey starting a public bank for a while and offered some tips to Murphy and others who are planning to set up a public bank.

A commission Murphy created this month to plan the bank’s establishment is set to meet early next month in Trenton. Murphy promised during the 2017 campaign to make a public bank.

Hardmeyer’s top piece of advice to the architects of a potential public bank in New Jersey was to be clear that it’s needed because the private sector is somehow inadequate. And from there, he said, it’s about persuading the public to support the undertaking.

“If you get public sentiment on your side saying, ‘This is an issue that we want to solve and this is the tool,’ that’s a big part of approval that you need,” he said.

Whether the public will get behind Murphy’s idea is unclear.

Murphy and supporters say the bank is needed to fill in “gaps” in current lending practices by, in part, using state deposits sitting in large banks for worthy projects in-state. Examples include providing student loans, helping prospective home-buyers get below-market-priced houses and giving loans to small businesses.

But the prospective bank faces considerable headwinds, including from the Democratic party, which runs state government, as well as from private industry.

Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney said late last week that he’s not in favor of the proposal.

“If it’s so good we would be the 50th state, not the second,” Sweeney said.

Republicans are united in their opposition. A top concern is the prospect for political interference in banking decisions.

“I think it will be a political bank that will model, in my judgment, someone’s political ideas of that day,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said.

Hardmeyer said concerns over political corruption have come up in North Dakota. He pointed to strong transparency laws as a guard against political influence and advised that it’s key for professional bankers to staff the bank.

That might sound like common sense, but Hardmeyer raised the prospect of a public bank being staffed by economic development professionals, who may be too eager to cut a deal on a project without weighing risk as objectively as a banker might.

He also warned against setting up a public bank simply for the sake of having one, and stressed that such a bank should be more of a partner, rather than a competitor of privately run banks.

The New Jersey Bankers Association, which represents private banks, is opposed to the public bank, citing concerns over political influence.

Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, a member of the commission and executive director of the liberal-leaning think tank, New Jersey Citizen Action, advocates for the bank.

She said the aim is not to compete with private banks and knows the idea won’t pass quickly through the Legislature because of the skepticism. Salowe-Kaye added that she mostly agreed with Hardmeyer but said it was clear New Jersey couldn’t copy North Dakota’s model.

“We need to have our own homegrown bank. It has to be New Jersey born and bred,” she said.