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Murphy makes good on some pledges, but challenges lie ahead

Mike Catalini, Associated Press | 5/5/2018, 10:38 a.m.
It's nearing budget crunch time for New Jersey's freshman Democratic governor.
New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy unveils his 2019 budget Tuesday, March 13, 2018, in the Assembly chamber of the Statehouse in Trenton, N.J. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

TRENTON, N.J. — It's nearing budget crunch time for New Jersey's freshman Democratic governor.

Gov. Phil Murphy heads into the final weeks of budget negotiations over his $37.4 billion spending proposal having delivered on campaign pledges, from boosting Planned Parenthood funding to enacting paid-sick-leave requirements. But for all the executive orders and bill signings, the biggest, hardest-to-pass issues lie ahead, and some promises have gone unfulfilled so far.

Murphy, a Democrat and former Goldman Sachs executive, capped a productive week in which he enacted legislation requiring employers to offer workers paid sick time and a bill aimed at blunting the expected effects of the federal tax overhaul on New Jersey taxpayers.

In a tweet that reads like a script from a campaign-style ad, Murphy cast his administration's work thus far as moving the state in a more progressive direction.

"Good-paying jobs. Great schools. Safer communities. A cleaner environment. Reliable mass transit. Fairer taxes. Opportunity. Optimism. New Jersey is leading the way for our nation. That's what a stronger and fairer New Jersey looks like," Murphy tweeted.

At just over 100 days in office, it's early to give Murphy a final grade, but his record so far speaks for itself: In addition to women's health funding, paid sick leave and the tax legislation, Murphy entered into a multistate anti-gun-violence coalition, joined lawsuits against the Trump administration, enacted stronger gender pay-equity legislation and expanded the state's medical marijuana program. He also reached a four-year, nearly $150 million deal with New Jersey's biggest state worker union.

But he's failed so far to legalize recreational marijuana, an issue that's stalled in the Legislature. A $15 per hour minimum wage has support in the Democrat-controlled Legislature, but there are disagreements over who should get the rate, and that's also held up for now. The budget is perhaps the biggest sticking point, with Democrats questioning Murphy's proposal to raise the sales tax and income tax on millionaires.

Analysts caution that the window for achieving difficult policies might be closing. Brigid Harrison, a political science professor at Montclair State University, said the policies Murphy tackled so far were "the low-hanging fruit," or easy-to-pick-off issues.

"He somewhat squandered the good will. I think there was an opportunity to focus on one or more of the programs that would have made a difference in the budget," she said.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg pushed back at the notion that issues like paid sick leave were "easy" to achieve. The issue has been around for roughly a half-dozen years and took many meetings behind closed doors before it was met with Murphy's signature, she said.

Murphy supporter Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, also a Democrat, put the freshman governor's efforts in baseball terms.

"There's going be growing pains. He hit a lot of singles, which I think is great. The budget situation, if it gets passed the way it is, I would classify as a homerun."

There are a couple of sticking points.

In particular, Senate President Steve Sweeney said he views Murphy's tax hike proposals as a "last resort," and without the revenue from those sources it's hard to see how Murphy can fund his proposed pension payment, New Jersey Transit's boosted state subsidy and education aid.

Another sticking point, which seems to be unknotting itself as the June 30 deadline approaches, is how state aid to schools is distributed. Murphy had proposed applying the 2008 School Funding Reform Act formula, but Sweeney and others said that shortchanges too many districts. Murphy says he will work them on "modernizing" his proposal.

Republicans generally view Murphy's proposals as making the state less affordable, but they have little leverage since they're in the minority. -- (AP)