Murphy at 100 days: ‘We have a long way to go’

PoliticoNew Jersey- New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy‘s style during his first 100 days in office was intentionally mild compared to his notoriously combative predecessor.

“Other folks that have had this job have had a my way or the highway [approach]. Not naming names,” the Democratic governor said in an interview with POLITICO on Monday, delivering a not-so-veiled reference to former Republican Gov. Chris Christie. “I’m not that guy. I could be strong and tough, but you don’t need to do it just for the sake of doing it. That’s just not who I am."

But it’s the next 100 days that could come to define Murphy's future, offering the first real test of his ability to navigate the transactional nature of Trenton politics and execute the agenda the 60-year-old liberal from Massachusetts sold to voters who elected him by a double-digit margin.

Murphy’s brief tenure seems to have restored a sense of business as usual to the state’s capitol city after the departure of Christie, who blew into Trenton in 2010 ready to brawl with public-sector unions and left office in January as the most hated governor in the state’s history. Murphy spent his first 100 days — a milestone he marks Wednesday — trying to undo much of what Christie did.

Now he must focus on what he’s pledged to do, moving beyond the feel-good-moments and low-hanging Democratic priorities he’s made the hallmark of the last few months. His agenda, which includes boosting school funding, free community college and fixing the beleaguered NJ Transit system, depends on raising $1.7 billion in new tax revenue and convincing lawmakers to do so before the next fiscal year begins in July.

Murphy’s proposed budget would raise taxes on millionaires, roll back a cut in the sales tax and impose new taxes on recreational marijuana — which has yet to be legalized — and services such as Airbnb and Uber. All of it, he said, will underpin his efforts to give New Jersey a “stronger and fairer economy."

“I don’t think it’s time for snake oil sales here. This is objectively needed,” said Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive and diplomat.

The tax plan has received a lukewarm reception from Democratic lawmakers, including the two leaders of the state Legislature, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin. The two sat stone-faced behind the governor has he delivered his blueprints in a major speech in March. When it was over, both men responded with skepticism — or worse.

“Tax increases are of last resort for me,” Sweeney said in an interview on Tuesday. “Because the question is, how do we pay for this stuff next year?"

Sweeney, who has sparred with Murphy in recent weeks over school funding but seems to be finding some common ground on the issue, said he was waiting for the latest income tax revenue numbers before having a “real in-depth discussion” about the path forward. Those will come in the next week or two, with less than two months to the June 30 budget deadline.

Sweeney came out earlier this year against the millionaire’s tax, which Murphy estimated would generate $765 million in revenue, and introduced a counter proposal to tax corporations, though he is now walking it back.

“Is it better to tax corporations or is it better to tax individuals? I don’t know. Or do we just tighten our belts and just try to make some real difficult decisions in this budget this year?” Sweeney said.

While there may be disagreement over the best way to generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, both the governor and the Legislature are hoping to avoid the nightmare scenario of last year, when the state government shut down for three days as Christie and lawmakers feuded over seemingly unrelated issues.

The first ever government shutdown, more than a decade earlier, was prompted by a clash between Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, another former Goldman Sachs executive, and the Democrat-controlled Legislature over raising the sales tax.

Murphy and Sweeney both said it was premature to draw any Corzine comparisons and predict another stalemate over the budget.

“We feel strongly, but we’re also reasonable people,” Murphy said. “We feel pretty good about where we’re going."

Since taking office, Murphy has used his position, arguably the most powerful governorship in the nation, to unilaterally roll back a number of regulatory changes, including Christie’s decision to pull out of a regional cap-and-trade energy program. He said he wants to stop vilifying public unions, and this month responded by agreeing to a tentative contract that would cover tens of thousands of state workers. And while he is yet to make progress in his efforts to legalize marijuana, he moved by executive order to dramatically expand the current medical marijuana program.

He’s also gone on the offensive against President Donald Trump, working with the state attorney general to launch or join a long list of lawsuits on issues ranging from immigration to the federal tax code. Murphy also formed a multi-state coalition to share information about guns and hasn’t been shy about banding together with other like minded state leaders.

Murphy and the Legislature have also tackled some of the easier items that languished on their wish list during Christie’s eight years in office. They moved to boost funding for Planned Parenthood, create the nation’s strongest equal pay law and enact an automatic voter registration system. Lawmakers are also on their way to sending the governor a slew of gun-control measures and tackling other big issues.

“We’ve done a lot,” Murphy said. “More than I thought we would have gotten done, but we have a long way to go, so I’m not spiking the football."

But it’s also clear to political observers that his achievements up until now, while offering some kumbaya moments for the fractured Democratic party, have the simplest items on his to-do list. His tax proposals still need to be sold and he needs to convince lawmakers they should back his plan to legalize recreational marijuana.

And even where the Democrats do agree, they disagree, as they have over their plans to raise the minimum wage to $15 — a proposal both Murphy and legislative leaders support but have been unable to get done.

“There's no doubt that he’s going off hitting every progressive, low-hanging fruit that he possibly can,” Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, said of the governor. “The tough stuff is still to come. The things where he’s going to have to fight, and he’s going to have opposition, he has shied away from.

“He’s waiting to run out of easy stuff,” Hale said.

The public has responded favorably so far. Murphy’s approval rating is at 44 percent, which is above where Christie’s approval was in his first three months, according to a recent Monmouth University Poll. And while many of those polled said they didn’t know enough to form an opinion, it’s clear Murphy hasn’t done much to hurt his rating.

There certainly hasn’t been any extreme backlash, like when former Democratic Gov. Jim Florio raised the state income tax and sales tax before exiting the Statehouse after one term under a cloud of voter disapproval.
“Revenues are never easy to raise,” Florio said in an interview this month.

But Murphy, he said, has done a good job of making the case for higher taxes, delivering what the former governor calls “an adult argument.” He’ll need to keep doing so, and perhaps on a grander than he has.

“Just to keep talking to people and explaining to the general public what the motivations are,” Florio said when asked if he had any advice for Murphy, given his own tumultuous tenure. “Nobody likes taxes, but nobody should like falling down bridges.”0

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