Governor Sets Up Special Team of Number Crunchers to Help Steer NJ Economy

John Reitmeyer | February 28, 2018 | Politics
Saying he doesn’t have ‘all the answers,’ Murphy orders up data-driven council to work on job creation and retention among other key issues in Garden State

Gov. Phil Murphy, at the International Union of Operating Engineers training center in Dayton, signs an executive order yesterday creating Jobs and Economic Opportunity Council.
Gov. Phil Murphy has a long list of ideas for improving New Jersey’s economy that includes emphasizing things like technology, green energy, and infrastructure investment. But Murphy also concedes he doesn’t “have all the answers,” and will therefore be seeking regular input from a new economic advisory panel.

Murphy is modeling the mission of his newly minted panel on the federal government’s Council of Economic Advisers, a group that has used research and empirical analysis to advise presidents on both domestic and international economic policies for the last several decades.

Created by an executive order the governor signed yesterday, the New Jersey Jobs and Economic Opportunity Council will be tasked with performing a data-driven analysis of economic trends and conditions to help guide the Murphy administration’s policymaking in several key areas, including job creation and job retention, he said.

The panel will count several key cabinet officials among its 12 members, including Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, and the leaders of the departments of Education, Labor, and the Treasury. The chief executive of the state Economic Development Authority and the director of Rutgers University’s John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development will also serve on the panel.

The big picture

“This is not a purview of one particular piece of government, this is a ‘whole of government’ approach,” Murphy said yesterday during an event at the International Union Operating Engineers’ training center in Dayton.

“This council will ensure that we are taking that approach, and that our values and priorities are properly aligned,” he said.

The panel’s formation was included in recommendations put forward by the group of experts Murphy’s transition team assembled to look at state economic issues after the 2017 election. His executive order also comes just a week after Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced the members of a special legislative task force that will evaluate New Jersey tax and fiscal policies.

Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, had never held public office before deciding to run for governor to replace the term-limited Chris Christie. During last year’s successful campaign against Republican Kim Guadagno, Christie’s longtime lieutenant governor, Murphy, a Democrat, ran on a message centered on improving the state economy and restoring opportunity for all communities.

Looking for ‘a new culture’

Since taking office last month, Murphy has already taken on several Christie-era economic policies, including by ordering up an audit of state tax incentive programs that were one of the hallmarks of the former governor’s approach to economic development. Murphy has also brought in a new leader for the Trenton-based EDA, saying he expects the agency to establish a “new culture.” (While Christie often took the credit any time there was improvement in the state economy or drops in the unemployment rate, he rarely offered empirical evidence to back up those claims.)

In announcing the formation of the new gubernatorial economic-advisory council, Murphy raised concerns about the economy that he inherited from Christie, including an unemployment rate that is a full percentage point higher than the federal jobless average. New Jersey also experienced only slow growth in the state’s gross-domestic product and worker wages during Christie’s tenure, Murphy said.

By contrast, he held up the state of Massachusetts, and suggested officials there have adopted a better approach to economic growth, one that has expanded the employment base at a far greater pace than New Jersey’s.

The new economic-advisory council will emphasize data analysis and inter-departmental communication as his administration drafts its new economic policies, Murphy said. The panel will also look for ways to generate funding from the federal government and outside philanthropic organizations.

“I will not pretend — and I certainly won’t today — to have all the answers,” he said.

Making up the new committee along with Oliver will be those serving as Murphy’s chief of staff; chief counsel; chief policy adviser; deputy chief of staff for economic growth; the state treasurer; commissioner of Education; commissioner of Labor: secretary of Higher Education; commissioner of Banking and Insurance; chief executive of the EDA; and the director of Rutgers’ Heldrich Center.

Need to ‘think big’

The executive order endorsed yesterday, the 12th to be drafted and signed by Murphy so far, also allows him to appoint new members to the council in the future if he sees a need to do so.

The order itself echoed the top recommendation that was made in a report last month by the experts assembled by Murphy’s transition team to look at state economic issues. Murphy even took the name for the proposed council the transition group suggested — the Jobs and Economic Opportunity Council, or JEOC.

“Created by executive order, the council would develop economic policy, help coordinate the implementation of priority polices, and monitor program results,” the transition report said.

While the council will get to work right away, Murphy cautioned yesterday that it would likely take time for its efforts to begin paying off. But he also said he was heeding the will of New Jersey residents who want their leaders to “think big” when it comes to reviving the state economy.

“We don’t get New Jersey right unless we get our economy right, and it’s that simple,” Murphy said.