Gov.-elect Phil Murphy’s pick to lead the state Department of Treasury is a member of the Legislature who already knows all about New Jersey’s deep fiscal challenges, having served on the Assembly Budget Committee for the last several years as the state has struggled with near-regular revenue shortfalls.
But the resume of Elizabeth Maher Muoio, a Democrat from Mercer County, also includes time spent as a local elected official and a county government leader, giving her a more rounded background, and one that contrasts with Gov. Chris Christie’s state treasurers, who had no in-state government experience at the time of their nominations.
Murphy, who himself is a newcomer to elected office in New Jersey, highlighted that experience while introducing Muoio as his treasurer nominee during a news conference in Trenton yesterday. He also said she shares his progressive values, and a belief that the state budget should reflect them.
“She knows our communities deserve more than lip service when it comes to aid that holds down property taxes, supports vital local services, and increases economic opportunity,” Murphy said.
Muoio, an attorney and resident of Pennington, will add to the diversity of the cabinet that Murphy is assembling, following the selection of Lieutenant Gov.-elect Sheila Oliver, who is African-American, to serve as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, and Gurbir Grewal to serve as the state’s first-ever South-Asian attorney general. Only a few women have ever served as state treasurer in New Jersey, and Muoio would be just the second to win Senate confirmation, after Feather O’Connor Houston during the Kean administration, and the first from the Democratic Party.
Shattering ‘one more glass ceiling’
“On behalf of the women of the state, I want to thank Gov.-elect Murphy for helping continue to shatter one more glass ceiling,” Muoio said.
Murphy’s choice was widely praised yesterday by fellow lawmakers and other groups that interact regularly with one of the state’s largest and most important departments.
“This is an excellent selection,” said Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen). “She possesses a working understanding of the interrelationship of finances among the different levels of government and its impact on the lives and livelihoods of the residents of New Jersey,” he went on to say.
With more than 3,000 employees, Treasury is one of the state’s most important departments, overseeing an annual state budget of nearly $35 billion, and the day-to-day operation of the $76 billion public-employee pension system. Treasury also administers state property-tax relief programs and handles all major borrowing issues, among other responsibilities.
The department has been led since late 2015 by Treasurer Ford Scudder, a financial analyst who spent most of his career working out-of-state for former Ronald Reagan economic-policy advisor Arthur Laffer. Scudder’s tenure followed that of former Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, who held cabinet-level positions in New York City and New York state government before joining Christie’s administration in 2010. (Sidamon-Eristoff is a regular contributor to NJ Spotlight).
Reputation for delving into Christie revenue forecasts
Muoio joined the Assembly in 2015, after Democrats in Mercer County picked her to fill a seat vacated by Democrat Bonnie Watson Coleman on her election to Congress in November 2014. Muoio had previously served as a councilwoman in Pennington and a county freeholder in Mercer County before taking her current position as the county’s director of economic development and sustainability.
As a member of the Assembly’s Budget Committee, she’s built a reputation for asking informed and probing questions of the Christie administration officials who’ve come before the panel in recent years, including as revenue forecasts have come up short in each of the last two fiscal years.
“She’s used her position to ask the hard questions of the current administration and to advocate for those who most need the support of state government,” Murphy said yesterday.
“I will miss looking to my left and hearing Liz asks questions, but I look forward to working with her in her new role,” said Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin (D-Essex), a budget committee member who is in line to take over the chair in January.
By not coming into the Assembly until 2015, Muoio missed one of the most divisive issues to come before majority Democrats in recent years, a 2011 measure backed by Christie that forced public employees to contribute more toward their pensions and health benefits. Known as Chapter 78, the benefits legislation is one of the reasons why unions like the New Jersey Education Association remain upset with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and other Democrats who supported the bill and gave it enough votes to become law.
Stood with Assembly Speaker Prieto
More recently, Muoio stood firmly with Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) during this year’s state budget impasse, as many other Democrats in the Assembly held up a final vote on the budget to leverage action on a separate and unrelated piece of legislation that Christie was pushing in a bid to overhaul how the state regulates Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, New Jersey’s largest health insurer.
If Muoio wins Senate confirmation — she is expected to be a shoo-in — she will have to directly confront the state’s many fiscal challenges, including the grossly underfunded pension system and figuring out how to stay on a pension contribution ramp-up schedule that will see state payments double to over $5 billion in a matter of a few years. Murphy also has ambitious plans to increase funding for local school districts and provide free tuition to community college students even as tax legislation moving toward final approval in Washington, D.C. could bring changes that upset New Jersey’s economic expansion.
Muoio could also soon be in a position to make significant changes to a building project the Christie administration is pursuing in its final weeks that includes the planned financing and construction of two new government office buildings in Trenton. As a lawmaker who represents the capital city, Muoio has loudly criticized the project; and as state treasurer, she would lead the Division of Property Management and Construction, which is heavily involved in the project along with the state Economic Development Authority.
Unlike Murphy, who is a former Goldman Sachs executive, Muoio doesn’t have a background in finance. But picking someone with legislative experience to serve in high-level administration roles follows advice offered earlier this year by John Weingart, associate director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics and director of the Eagleton Center on the American Governor.
After Murphy introduced her yesterday, Muoio pointed to her time on the Assembly Budget Committee as a good training ground. “It will be tough for anybody, this position, let’s be honest, but I feel it’s given me a grasp of what we have, what the challenges are, and I’ve also gotten to know a lot of great people who I hope to work to come up with solutions for those challenges,” Muoio said.
Plenty of praise, some criticism
Muoio’s selection won praise from several public-worker union officials, including the leader of the NJEA. “As a legislator, she has proven herself to be a champion of New Jersey families and working people, as well as a staunch supporter of public education,” said NJEA president Marie Blistan.
Her selection was also applauded by the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, which cited her work as an economic-development official in Mercer County as an asset. “We believe Assemblywoman Muoio’s experience in economic development and her knowledge of the state’s finances combined with her strong business background will serve her well in this new capacity,” the chamber said in a statement.
But not everyone was as complimentary. Doug Steinhardt, the chairman of the state Republican Party, issued a statement that called Muoio’s selection “disappointing” while also labeling her as a “Trenton insider.”
“Given her record, Liz Muoio is not the right person to stand watch over New Jersey’s fiscal future as the State’s Treasurer,” he said.