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How President Trump Will Alter New Jersey’s Policies and Programs

It may be too early to get a sense of the specifics, but it is incontrovertible: Change is coming to the Garden State

donald trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency, together with a Republican-led Congress, will impact many of the programs New Jerseyans have either come to rely on in the past or had hoped to work with in the future. To get an idea of what state leaders are considering when they look toward 2017, we asked a number of them to talk about changes we might expect next year.

Healthcare

One obvious target of a Trump administration is the Affordable Care Act. Many suspect he will try to make good on his campaign promise to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, but some say it may not be that simple. Ending the program requires 60 votes in the U.S. Senate — something some observers said is unlikely, since lawmakers will face opposition from those who gained access to care, as well as hospitals, drug companies, and insurance companies that also benefited from the 2014 law.

“The interest-group politics align toward keeping it,” said Joel Cantor, director of the Center for State Health Policy and a Rutgers professor, adding that insurance companies alone have spent “tens of millions” remaking their systems to adapt to the ACA. “I think we’re talking about a hypothetical that won’t happen.”

But Linda Schwimmer, president and CEO of the New Jersey Health Care Quality Institute, isn’t so sure. “I think it will happen. I think it is a campaign promise he will move on,” she said, urging the president-elect to move carefully. “They'll be hearing from all their constituents who previously were shut out of insurance coverage and having it literally change or save their lives.”

Some 20 million Americans gained coverage under the ACA, including more than 700,000 New Jersey residents. Coverage for the vast majority of these folks would disappear without the federal funding now in place, experts predicted.

“This means there will be a lot more uninsured people,” Schwimmer said, “and we would be back where we were before.” That means a market with few affordable plans, let alone coverage that is truly comprehensive.

“We would go back to a status quo that wasn’t that good,” Cantor agreed.

As an alternative to the ACA, Trump has suggested he would provide federal block grants for states to craft their own Medicaid programs, instead of the current system that is run by states but primarily funded and governed by a national program.

Cantor felt this is unlikely, since the concept is “loathed by governors on both sides of the [political] aisle,” who may like the idea of greater flexibility, but oppose the cap on federal dollars that would leave them responsible for a growing share of the costs for covering the sickest, most expensive patients. He expects a more likely outcome is that Trump will tinker with administrative changes that impact some aspects of coverage, but leave the framework of the ACA intact.

But Schwimmer felt a shift to block grants could well happen, especially with the ongoing shift in government insurance plans from a focus on volume to one on outcomes and cost. “I think the most likely option is to bring it back to the states,” she said.

The result is likely to be a patchwork of policies nationwide and growing focus on controlling costs at the state level, Schwimmer explained, as they are forced to pick up more and more of the tab. “It’s risk shifting,” she said. “And it would also be a big hit to our state budget.”

Transportation

New Jersey is looking to do massive multibillion transportation projects — from the Gateway tunnel, to Port Authority projects like a new bus terminal, to overhauls of roads and highways. Most of this will not be possible without federal funding.

Janna Chernetz, senior New Jersey policy analyst with the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said the big issue to look out for is what happens to the federal government’s planned $24 billion Gateway tunnel project. After years of discussion, federal officials recently said the proposal to build two rail tunnels under the Hudson River connecting New Jersey with Manhattan would be eligible for billions in federal funding, as well as an expedited permitting process.

“I am keeping my eye on the momentum to get Gateway done,” Chernetz said.

Trump, during his acceptance speech early yesterday morning, offered some hope, pledging to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including its bridges and tunnels. And Gov. Chris Christie, a second-term Republican who has been leading Trump’s transition effort, has also been a supporter of the Gateway project after deciding to cancel an earlier, state-led tunnel-construction effort in late 2010.

But Trump will also be working with a Congress controlled by Republicans that could prioritize new tax cuts, and there are concerns that could make it harder for the federal government to generate the revenue needed to pay for major mass-transit projects like Gateway.

“It is (and) was a priority under the Obama administration, but this project will span several years and administrations, so it needs to remain a priority during transition and into the Trump administration,” Chernetz said.  

Environment and energy

Of the few policy details Trump did espouse during the campaign, many of them had to do with energy and the environment. The Republican often supported weakening the maze of environmental regulations, and called for bolstering efforts to allow expanded exploration for oil, natural gas, and coal. He wants to scale back the authority of the Environmental Protection Agency, killing its plan to combat global warming by ratcheting down emissions from the nation’s power plants.

In many ways, the battles a Trump administration wages with clean-energy proponents and environmental groups is likely to repeat many of the fights waged in New Jersey during the first seven years under Christie.

Indeed, Christie joined more than two dozen other states challenging the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of the president’s efforts to deal with climate change. New Jersey has refused to come up with a plan to comply with Clean Power — even if it ends up on the losing end of its court challenge.

“It’s going to be a long four years,’’ predicted Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, one of the groups that often has wound up in court challenging what it viewed as rollbacks of environmental regulations on the state level.

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, agreed. “In the next administration, the environment will be ‘Trumped,’’’ he said. “We’ll see some of the biggest battles on the environment since before Earth Day.’’

The issues likely to embroil the two sides range from opening up federal lands to oil exploration and mining, more battles over fracking — the controversial drilling technique use to extract oil and gas — and a weakening of the nation’s clean-water and clean-air regulations, Tittel said.

But some argue that the success achieved by clean-energy technologies, such as solar and wind, in lowering their costs while providing an economic engine to various parts of the country will keep those sectors thriving.

“The market has kind of spoken,’’ O’Malley noted. “You can’t veto innovation.’’

Andrew Steer, president of World Resources Institute, echoed that sentiment on a conference call with reporters assessing the significance of the U.S. election. “If you want robust growth, you have to act on climate change,’’ he said.

Education

Trump has hardly made education a defining issue in his run for the White House. But he has laid out some broad positions on some of the hot issues of the day in New Jersey and elsewhere, even if short on details.

For instance, he has only shown disdain for the federal role in public education as a whole, reviving a proposal dating back to former President Ronald Reagan to dismantle the federal Department of Education altogether.

Whether this is even feasible is a question, but the position certainly suggests lighter federal oversight may be on the way.

“That’s red meat for the GOP, but I don’t see it happening,” said Patrick McGuinn, associate professor at Drew University who closely follows federal education policy. “But I do see he will try to roll back some of the regulation that come out of the department.”

McGuinn pointed to areas such as the Obama administration’s backing of the Common Core State Standards, already somewhat scaled back in New Jersey, to more specific federal oversight of civil rights policy in schools.

“You’re seeing echoes of that with the Obama administration, and Trump has said there will be pullback,” he said.

At the same time, Trump has been supportive of school choice and charter schools in particular, an issue that the federal government has some influence on through funding and the bully pulpit. But how much his position differs from Obama’s pro-charter position is yet to be seen.

A more profound influence on the state’s education policy could be Christie’s expected exit from New Jersey to take a position in the Trump administration.

Christie has made pubic school reform one of the centerpieces of his tenure. But will that agenda leave with the governor? Most immediately, Christie is pressing for a rewriting of the state’s school-funding system through his “Fairness Formula,” including an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Supporters said they did not think that push would run out of steam without the governor leading the way, and in fact it could be a pivotal issue for Republicans in next year’s gubernatorial race.

“I think we have a number of good candidates that can run in 2017, but most importantly I think we have to run on that Fairness Formula,” said state Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Warren). “It brings everything together for the Republicans of why our property taxes are so high in our towns, and I think it gives Republicans an effective weapon to advocate against the status quo.”

The economy

It’s very unclear how a Trump administration will impact the economy. Trump talked throughout the campaign about lowering tax rates and reforming trade deals. His proposals on immigration, healthcare, and energy could also impact the broader economy. But right now exactly how those campaign positions will translate into policy is unknown — as is whether New Jersey could ultimately benefit.

The state's business community has routinely identified as its top concerns the cost of health benefits, property taxes, and the overall cost of doing business, said Michele Siekerka, president of the New Jersey Business & Industry Association.

Though property taxes are largely a local issue, federal policy can directly affect healthcare and the cost of doing business.

“If the federal agenda is able to successfully tackle these issues then our economic climate will be that much better and New Jersey businesses will grow,” Siekerka said. “The key now is to break down gridlock and unite across the aisle to make the state’s business climate more competitive, both locally and globally.”

— Chase Brush, Tom Johnson, John Mooney, John Reitmeyer, and Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this story.

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