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Murphy Celebrates 100 Days in Office, Will Next 100 Be More of a Challenge?

Ahead for the new governor: getting his budget, the largest in state history, through the Legislature, the millionaires tax, school funding — and that’s just for starters

phil murphy
Credit: WNYC
Gov. Phil Murphy

It’s been 100 days since Gov. Phil Murphy took office, which he celebrated with TV interviews and a major speech in New Brunswick that touted his recent bill signings and other executive actions. But it’s the next 100 days that will be more telling to the success of Murphy’s proposed agenda, as well as how well he will lead the state in the next three and a half years.

The fate of Murphy’s biggest and most difficult policy goals, like hiking taxes on the wealthy, dealing with the school-funding formula, and legalizing recreational marijuana will be determined in coming weeks with a state Legislature he’s still learning to work with.

Murphy, a Democrat who never held elected office before being sworn in as governor in January, talked about providing equal pay for women and prioritizing efforts to combat climate change, among other issues, as he took stock of the 100-day milestone yesterday.

“We are finally starting to lead the nation in the right things,” Murphy said during the speech at Rutgers University.

Glossing over early problems

But he also glossed over several early problem spots, including a K-12 education spending proposal that has upset parents in many school districts, forcing him to backtrack and promise changes will be coming. Murphy’s budget plan for the 2019 fiscal year has also left some doubt about the future of a major state property-tax relief program that for over a decade has helped hundreds of thousands of low-income homeowners, seniors, and the disabled deal with the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes.

Still, Murphy’s first 100 days were widely touted as a success by several groups yesterday, while the head of the state Republican Party warned New Jersey residents to “hold onto their hats” over the next more than 1,300 days of the Murphy administration.

Among the policy achievements that Murphy ticked off during his speech at Rutgers yesterday was the bill signing held earlier this week for a new law that will strengthen New Jersey’s protections against gender-wage discrimination when it goes into effect in July. Murphy also highlighted other pieces of legislation that he signed into law in recent weeks, including bills that restore state funding for Planned Parenthood, expand voter-registration efforts, and ban offshore drilling for fossil fuels.

“In the overall arc of our administration, 100 days is just a starting point. But we have been aggressive in restoring New Jersey’s stature and in turning around our direction,” Murphy said.

‘Stark challenges’ ahead

In a seeming nod to upcoming negotiations with lawmakers in advance of a June 30 deadline for a new state budget, Murphy said there are “stark challenges” ahead, and that he isn’t going to “spike the football” just yet.

Murphy’s budget plan calls for a series of tax hikes worth $1.7 billion, including the establishment of a 10.75 percent personal income-tax rate for earnings over $1 million, and the restoration of a 7 percent general sales-tax rate. A series of corporate tax-code changes and the legalization and taxing of recreational marijuana are also key elements of his budget plan.

So far, Democratic legislative leaders like Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) have kept Murphy’s tax proposals at arm’s length, saying any tax hikes should be a “last resort.” That means it’s still unclear whether lawmakers will ultimately go along with his calls for increased spending on things like mass transit and K-12 education — an area where Murphy remains at odds with Sweeney and other lawmakers as his initial funding plan upset parents across the state.

Still, in the speech yesterday, Murphy told supporters that “we know the people of New Jersey are with us.”

“We know they understand that investing in our state will take new revenues,” he said.

The governor’s pitch for legalized marijuana has also been getting a rocky reception in the State House, even from members of his own party who hold a clear majority. And Murphy’s budget plan has also raised eyebrows among lawmakers from both parties for carrying on deep cuts in funding for the state’s Homestead Property Tax Relief program that were part of the current fiscal-year budget signed into law by Christie last July.

Social media weighs in

In a response delivered on Facebook yesterday afternoon following Murphy’s speech, state GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt took direct aim at some of the governor’s budget proposals. He also suggested more should be done to manage existing programs before launching costly new ones, citing Murphy’s call for free community college in New Jersey as an example.

“That’s just the first 100 days, folks,” Steinhardt said. “Hold onto your hats, or better yet, your wallets.”

But among those giving Murphy high marks yesterday was the immigrant-advocacy group Make the Road New Jersey, which highlighted the administration’s legal efforts on behalf of so-called dreamers — immigrants who were brought to the country without documentation as children.

“The Murphy administration has taken bold and decisive steps to deliver on its campaign promise that New Jersey will ‘have the backs’ of Dreamers,” the group said in a news release.

A recent Monmouth University Polling Institute survey found 44 percent of those polled approved of Murphy’s job performance so far, with 28 percent disapproving. That put him in better shape than Christie in April 2010, when he had a 41 percent job-approval rating compared with a 44 percent disapproval rating. Going back more than a decade, former Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who also proposed a sales-tax increase during his first year in office, had approval and disapproval ratings of 34 percent and 37 percent in April 2006, according to the Monmouth poll.

Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth’s polling institute, suggested while Murphy made it clear in yesterday’s speech that he wasn’t going to “spike the football,” the governor came pretty close.

“It’s clear that he’s holding it over his head right now, ready to do so,” Murray said.

Murray also said that Murphy’s speeches are starting to sound the same as he continues to echo lines from last year’s gubernatorial campaign.

Recycling speeches

“It’s a great speech, covers a lot of content, but it’s the same speech he gave at his budget (address) basically, it’s the same speech he gave when he was inaugurated, it’s the same speech he gave on the campaign trail,” Murray said.

Murray also warned that Murphy has to be careful because not many people are paying very close attention to him right now.

“There has been crystal-clear polling data from the time he’s been running for governor that the vast majority of New Jerseyans do not know what Phil Murphy is all about,” Murray said. “There’s a general sense that’s he’s liberal, but they’re not quite sure what he’s going to do.”

“The biggest mistake he can make is to take that silence and assume it’s support for a mandate,” Murray said. “If he doesn’t tackle the big-ticket items that New Jerseyans worry about when they’re sitting at their kitchen table at night, such as how they’re going to pay their property-tax bills, then he’s going to have a rude awakening.”

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