If 2016 was the year for electing change in the White House, then 2017 was the year for New Jersey to bring a new voice to Trenton. Now-former Gov. Chris Christie left office with the lowest approval rating of any governor in New Jersey’s history—a stunning fall from grace for someone who once appeared to be a shoe-in for the GOP presidential nomination. Running on a decidedly liberal agenda, Phil Murphy was swept to victory almost too easily some might say, due in large part to his opponent being Christie’s lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno. Voters responded to Murphy’s differences from Christie and heard him pledging to address issues that have long plagued the state. From the strained budget, pension reform and transportation infrastructure, to more progressive initiatives like legalizing recreational marijuana, raising the minimum wage to $15, creating tuition-free college and investing in renewable energy—among countless others—he has raised hopes across the state.
But are his goals too ambitious? In order to succeed and retain New Jersey’s trust, where should Murphy put his energy first, and how soon until we feel the benefits—or fallout—from his decisions?
MURPHY THE POLITICIAN
As the Republican Party, at least from the perspective of President Donald Trump, moves further right, Democrats have been more willing to shift to the left, including Gov. Murphy. “He is unashamed to label himself a progressive,” says Ben Dworkin, director of the new Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University. “There was a time in recent memory when Democrats shied away from those labels—they were either moderate or common sense—but Murphy is clearly going to embrace a progressive agenda, and it makes sense as the party itself has shifted and is more progressive than it was 10 years ago.”
In his inauguration speech, Murphy called for a “stronger and fairer New Jersey,” and defiantly stated that “we will resist every move from President Trump and a misguided congressional leadership” on issues concerning income inequality, gutting health care, delegitimizing the LGBTQ community or denying access to college for Dreamers.
He continued by calling on the legislature to send him bills that would have faced veto by Christie, specifically those reaffirming the state’s commitment to women’s health and Planned Parenthood, strengthening gun laws, earned sick leave and a $15-an-hour minimum wage. His first action as governor was signing an executive order supporting equal pay for women.
With this strong language and action, Murphy distances himself from the policies put forth by Trump. “Holding office at the same time as Trump may make his tasks easier,” says John Weingart, director of the Rutgers Center on the American Governor and associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics. “He can easily unify Democrats and not alienate Republicans and the contrast between him and Trump will likely work in his favor in terms of the image he establishes and voter confidence.”
Despite these fundamental differences, Murphy could learn from some aspects of his predecessor to stay in the public’s favor. “The public clearly wanted a change from Christie, but it doesn’t mean they want the opposite,” Dworkin says. “There were some things people liked [about Christie], namely when Christie was able to present himself as a defender of the common person and work against special interests. I think Murphy will try to do that even as he has a different agenda.”
Murphy is not without his share of criticism, maybe for the very things some would say they admire in him: his confidence, and perhaps his naiveté of “the way things work.”
“There is a craft to governing and skills to be learned by being in politics,” says Weingart. “These skills are complicated, intricate and subtle, and experience would be helpful, but at the same time, governors have come in before him with extensive legislative experience and found their administration not doing so well pretty quickly.”
While Christie faced challenges related to a legislative branch belonging to the opposite party, Murphy has the backing of Democrats in the Assembly and Senate. But he may quickly come to see that his agenda is not a mandate, especially with Senate President Steve Sweeney ( D-Gloucester) and new Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (DMiddlesex) leading their branch, both of whom are widely known as having more moderate-leaning views on some of Murphy’s platform issues.
Even with one party in control, Weingart says there is history of things not going smoothly. “It’s the nature of government,” he says. “On one hand it’s helpful to have both houses in the legislature controlled by one party, on the other hand, it establishes the leadership as very powerful figures in the development of state policy.” He says Sweeney will have a new experience as a majority leader with a Democratic governor. “In general he has seemed to have views somewhat less liberal than Murphy’s and maybe some philosophic differences. … It will take great political skills for Murphy to work effectively with the legislature.”
Dworkin says Trenton would be wise to avoid fighting among themselves. “They see the dysfunction of Washington with Republican control and they want to avoid that,” he says.
Murphy’s personality, though, will work in his favor. “His life until now has given him a deep sense of self-confidence. He is extremely outgoing and has a friendly personality, both of which will be helpful to him,” says Weingart. “His contacts in the business world and [those he made] while he was ambassador, could be useful.”
PRIORITIES, NOT PROMISES
Murphy may have lofty goals, but the road to achieving them is all uphill. He is inheriting a state whose credit rating was downgraded 11 times under Christie and an unfunded public pension that was deemed “no longer within the state’s means” by the New Jersey Pension and Health Benefit Study Commission. NJ Transit is, in Murphy’s own words, a “national disgrace,” with major infrastructure in need of upgrades. “Like most N.J. governors going back several decades, he starts out with a significant fiscal crisis he needs to address,” says Weingart. “Very few of his priorities won’t be challenging, but the situation he inherits is more fraught.”
Despite all of this, he has inspired confidence in his constituents that all will be resolved. They may face a harsh reality.
“Murphy focused on these priorities in his campaign, things he wanted to pay attention to,” says Dworkin. “But people didn’t hear priorities, they heard promises. Everyone believes after eight years they will have a seat at the table and Murphy will fund what they want and implement policy change like they have been seeking. But it’s not going to happen in the first year. The resources aren’t there. Murphy knows this.”
As required by New Jersey’s Constitution, the budget must be balanced, and little can happen until Murphy shows how he will account for the money to fund the projects many are waiting for. Just to maintain current government spending, Murphy must fill a $900 million hole in the budget, says Dworkin. “For the government just to do what it is doing today, he needs to fill the hole and then find additional money for any project he wants to implement. And he has to come up with this plan by the end of March,” he says.
Dworkin says Trenton observers expect Murphy’s millionaire’s tax to be implemented, but it will take time, and the same goes for tax revenue he might be banking on by legalizing marijuana. “There are a number of details to work out and legislation should move quickly, but not as quickly to actually be implemented,” says Dworkin, adding there are insurance issues to address, along with figuring out how to test someone for being under the influence. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ announcement that federal prosecutors could bring marijuana charges even in states where it is legal, could make Murphy’s plans more complicated and distract from his initial campaign pledges.
Other unforeseen challenges like this from the Trump administration have come to the forefront as well. There is the plan to open the U.S. coast to offshore drilling—a controversial move for a state like New Jersey whose Shore is a large contributor to the economy and tourism—which Murphy has signaled he will fight. “Offshore drilling was not something we were talking about [during the campaign] until Trump announced it,” says Dworkin. “That’s going to be a real issue. Also, the tax plan changes that affect those who pay more than $10,000 in property taxes—six months ago we weren’t talking about that. Murphy has also clearly stated that N.J. is not going to willingly go along with identifying, arresting and deporting the 20,000 DACA recipients in the state.
“He will stand up against what he disagrees with, but at the same time, we desperately need $10 billion from the federal government for the [Gateway] tunnel between N.J. and New York,” Dworkin continues. “It will be a dance to get the funding they need while confronting Trump on a host of issues.”
FACING THE CHALLENGES
In his first few days as governor, Murphy took action on certain issues already. He announced an expansion for medical marijuana, joined with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy in filing a multi-state legal action against the GOP tax bill and revealed his intentions to tighten restrictions on carry permits for handguns. But perhaps one that stirred the interest of many residents was his action on NJ Transit.
Before taking office he requested the resignation of several senior NJT employees, many of whom were Christie’s political appointees. Then he called for a full-scale audit to look at the agency’s finances, hiring process and leadership, among others, in an attempt to get at the core of its issues and possibly restore riders’ faith. Janna Chernetz, director, NJ policy, for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign (TSTC), called it a “smart move.” The organization is a nonprofit, nonpartisan transportation policy advocacy coalition which addresses issues such as car dependency, pedestrian safety, as well as acts as a watchdog on agencies such as NJT.
“Gov. Murphy has put transportation at the forefront and it’s about time it’s getting this kind of attention,” Chernetz says. “In order to fix NJ Transit, you have to know what the problems are. … This audit will get to the nitty-gritty.”
Chernetz says NJT’s operating budget is a crisis of its own. “Fifty percent of its budget is dependent on fare revenue, and this has spiked in comparison to other agencies,” she says. “That’s one source for half of the budget, and any decrease in ridership severely affects the bottom line. The budget is a battle year in and year out and every year there is no guarantee for the money to reach its operating needs.”
When operating funds fall short, NJT dips into the capital budget, which means capital upgrades are either postponed or eliminated, she says. “They are never able to keep up.”
NJT is also due to complete the installation of an automatic braking system, then there is the estimated $13 billion Gateway tunnel project and the Trump Administration seemingly going back on an agreement to fund half of it with federal dollars—a plan forged under President Obama. In South Jersey, the Camden-Glassboro light rail line will move forward to the Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).
“This is a project that was long delayed, but the commitment after the Transportation Trust Fund Renewal, along with additional committed funding in the NJ Transportation Improvement Program by Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, will produce the EIS to move ahead,” says Dana Dobson, South Jersey coordinator at TSTC. “Though there is some worry that there will be a lack of funds to do the actual construction, which does not have committed money as of yet.”
New leadership may make all the difference when it comes to the state’s transportation headaches.
“I’m confident in his selection for NJ DOT [Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti] and ultimately for NJ Transit [Kevin Corbett] will be the right fit and deliver on the promises he made during the campaign,” Chernetz says.
Education is another area where voters responded to Murphy. He has said he wants to fully fund schools and address the pension funding crisis, expand free pre-K across the state and end the controversial PARCC testing, proposals that helped draw the support of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA).
After years of contention with Christie, NJEA President Marie Blistan, who is also a teacher in Washington Township, says members were looking for a candidate who shared their values and respected their professional expertise. “For eight years our members’ economic security has been under attack,” she says. “Due to huge health care costs that have been imposed on public employees, many of our members are seeing their take-home pay decrease from year to year. We have to reverse that trend so that our members can continue to support their families and so that we can continue to attract the best people into the profession.”
Murphy fit that bill for the NJEA. “Gov. Murphy has the clearest visions and the strongest pro-public education platform,” she says. “He’s shown since being elected and taking office that he’s committed to implementing that vision for New Jersey’s public schools and for our state as a whole.”
She hopes to see his promises honored in his budget. “He values working families. He values honoring the pension promise that the state has made to public employees,” Blistan says. “I think you are going to see those key values reflected in his budget. I think, at long last, we are going to see action instead of just excuses.”
As New Jersey students explore higher education, Murphy wants to find a path for them to pursue degrees without incurring looming debt, and this may include tuition-free community college. The NJ Council of County Colleges, comprising the state’s 19 county schools, says it supports this idea. But no official plan has been presented.
Don Borden, president of Camden County College (CCC), says it’s hard to support something when you don’t know the parameters. “The idea that students would be able to get minimally an associate’s or certificate completed in a way that is to their benefit fiscally, I don’t think anyone would argue with,” he says. “But there has to be some level of accountability from the students and institution. What they are and what that looks like, we don’t know yet.”
But collectively, he says, he and his colleagues are concerned about the debt crisis. “Too many students in the state and nationally are incurring debt to complete their educations. When you look at statistics of why students leave school prior to finishing, overwhelmingly it’s for financial reasons,” Borden says. “If this eases the burden then we would be in favor as educators.”
Taxpayers potentially may end up paying for it, if the plan follows models used in other states, but a better educated workforce would be to the state’s benefit. “Employers can’t find enough qualified candidates in all too many areas. A plan like this would open the door to a better educated, better prepared workforce,” he says. “I hope this moves forward and we see what it will look like and I’m hopeful for students who will benefit.”
In fact, bolstering the workforce coincides with one of Murphy’s signature pushes, says Dworkin. “You could find a cheaper place to operate your business than New Jersey, but the reasons people come here to do business are things not related to tax policy,” he says. “They come here because we are four hours from 20 percent of the American population by car, because we’re a well-educated state with the highest high school graduation rate in the country and we are diverse, and in a global economy it helps to be in a place where people speak multiple languages.”
Murphy wants to build on a friendly, small business and entrepreneurial culture, which could be a reason he has ordered an audit of another kind on the popular Grow NJ tax credits that have been offered to large corporations who promise to move to or remain in New Jersey. Companies such as Subaru and Holtec have taken advantage of this program and have moved or are in the process of relocating to Camden. In the past, Murphy has criticized these tax credits for seemingly being the only “tool” used to attract businesses.
But those who have been working to build up South Jersey hope the progress is not stalled, including George E. Norcross III, chairman of the board of trustees of Cooper Health System and Cooper University Hospital. He wants to see continued progress being made in Camden and Atlantic City.
“My focus, as it has been for decades, remains ensuring that South Jersey has the support and resources it needs to provide a high quality of life for its residents and businesses,” Norcross says. “I hope and expect Gov. Murphy will be an active partner in Camden’s renaissance—its dramatic turnaround could not have happened without a full partnership between the state and local leaders—and that he commits to revitalizing Atlantic City, which has begun to stabilize and rebuild.”
Murphy has expressed interest in ending the state takeover in Atlantic City, but has not yet made an official announcement.
Norcross continues, “I believe that our region’s best days could be ahead with the right vision and leadership in Trenton and I look forward to doing what I can to work with the governor to make that true.”
New Jersey, and in many cases the country at large, will be closely watching Murphy’s actions, says Weingart. “People will look at things he will do to see if it hints if he will run for president, and there’s nothing he can do to stop that,” he says.
Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 11 (February 2018).