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Op-Ed: Governor Is Great, Not Weak, for Compromising on the Budget

Murphy is already better at his job than many who held the position before him. Media ‘malarkey’ does him a disservice

Doug Johnston
Doug Johnston

Perception is not reality but — especially in the political world — it sure is important. And misperceptions cause havoc and halt progress.

The post-budget reviews by opinion writers seems to castigate Gov. Phil Murphy for perceived weakness because he compromised. I know from personal professional experience how important this perception is and how much it can damage progress.

Years ago, when I was promoting a bill to require hospitals and other healthcare facilities to publicly disclose major medical errors — they call them events — I first met with State Sen. Joe Vitale, chair of the Senate health committee because if you want to get something done in healthcare in New Jersey, you need his support. Unfortunately, he wasn’t willing at the time. So I went to the other guy you had to consult and seek support of for such public-policy projects, Assembly health committee chairman Herb Conaway, Jr., MD. His committee took up the bill, passed it, and then it passed the Assembly with strong support.

But the buck stopped there — for a while. Sen. Vitale declined to move the bill out of his committee and that precipitated an unfortunate showdown that I’ve always regretted.

The next year I went to speak with David Knowlton, president and CEO of the Health Care Quality Institute and raised the issue. I’ll never forget what he said to me: “We didn’t think you were willing to compromise.” I was floored. I never refused to negotiate or to compromise. To do so is stubborn and stupid. Long story short, I made clear my willingness to work out concerns with the bill, negotiate, and compromise.

Compromise saved the day

That perception of my unwillingness to negotiate and compromise had killed the bill for the session. But after that, we worked with Knowlton, Sen. Vitale, Assemblyman Conaway and legislative leadership to get the bill and companion bills done and signed into law later that year.

Gov. Murphy is a great governor because he was willing to compromise. You could tell that legislative leaders did not perceive that in May. Thankfully, in the end, compromise saved the day. Senate President Steve Sweeney compromised as well as Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin — although I think the latter may have compromised the least. How much is irrelevant.

It is unfortunate that media editorialists such as Carl Golden and others tally up the negotiated results like they were poker winnings and then push the notion that Gov. Murphy was weak or failed or was bested by Sweeney. Such talk is just so much machismo and malarkey.

It takes courage to compromise. It takes guts and brains to negotiate and develop complicated, important agreements to the tune of a $37 billion budget.

We should all be applauding the governor and legislative leaders. You can disagree with the policies, but don’t knock the process. It’s called democracy.

Gov. Murphy is already a better governor than his recent predecessors. He hired a diverse team with a great mix of State House and outside Trenton experience. He worked to ensure the state budget was done on time with substantial new investments in education, transportation, healthcare and more.

Sen. Sweeney is exactly right that the New Jersey Legislature is a coequal partner in state government. State House backroom anonymous sources claiming “victory” for Sweeney don’t get it. The state budget was a win-win-win.

Or maybe they would have preferred a shutdown? Probably.

There’s a perception problem about competition between Gov. Murphy and Sen. Sweeney — and it’s continuing among the media and the State House crowd. The reporting has been relevant, but it’s become entertainment and that’s not appropriate. You can see it in the reporting on the legislative panel appointed by Sweeney to study tax reforms and related issues. Some journalists report on that as if it is an affront to the governor. Nah. Not at all. The Legislature is doing its job and so is Gov. Murphy. Politics is the important business of implementing democracy, not a source of amusement or a target of constant derision.

Doug Johnston is a public-affairs, lobbying and communications consultant.

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