Governor Approves Pay Raises for Judges, Cabinet Members, Senior State Officials

As measure passes with little attention, Murphy calls it long overdue but also says New Jerseyans on ‘substandard hourly wage’ should not be forgotten

Credit: NJTV News Online
Gov. Phil Murphy
After approving raises earlier this month for more than 30,000 rank-and-file state workers, Gov. Phil Murphy has decided to keep the checkbook open to cover pay hikes for higher-ranking state officials, including his Cabinet members and justices serving on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Under a bipartisan bill that Murphy, a Democrat, signed into law on Friday, the annual salary for the state’s executive-branch cabinet officials goes from $141,000 to $175,000, which is the same amount the governor himself makes.

The new law also raises the pay of state Supreme Court justices by $8,000 in each of the next three years, bringing it from just under $186,000 to nearly $210,000; and up to $216,795 for the chief justice of the high court. Also set up for pay hikes are Superior Court and Tax Court judges, the executive directors of the majority and minority legislative staff in both the Assembly and Senate, and members of the Board of Public Utilities. In all, the total cost of the raises for state government next year is estimated to be just under $10 million.

Murphy highlighted the judicial pay raises in a statement released by his office on Friday after the bill was signed behind closed doors, saying it’s been nearly a decade since the justices have received a bump in pay. The governor also used the signing of the legislation to make another pitch for a statewide $15 minimum wage — a key campaign promise he made last year that lawmakers have yet to sign onto.

Little public attention

Murphy’s endorsement of the pay-raise legislation caps a longstanding effort by lawmakers to provide raises to senior administration officials, judges and their own top staff. In fact, an earlier version of the bill drafted by majority Democrats sought to entice former Republican Gov. Chris Christie to sign it by including language that would have changed state ethics rules to allow the sitting governor to profit from a book-publishing deal while still in office. But that draft was ultimately killed in the Legislature after it drew a public backlash.

This time around, the measure generated much less public attention as it moved through the Legislature, although it did draw a lengthy debate on the Senate floor last month as a small group of Democrats and Republicans questioned why the state was considering hiking the pay of already well-compensated officials.

According to a fiscal note prepared last month by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, it will cost nearly $9 million during the 2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1, to cover the increase in pay for the judges and justices. The raises for the officials in the executive and legislative branches will add another $1 million.

The pay-raise bill will also increase costs on county governments by $336,000 in fiscal 2019 as county prosecutors are also receiving a salary hike, according to the OLS fiscal note. There will also be an impact of “indeterminate amounts” on the state’s grossly underfunded public-employee pension system as the pay increases will influence the retirement benefits of those receiving them.

Some criticism

But the price tag for the bill is far less than the estimated $50 million tab in fiscal 2019 for a round of pay raises the governor approved earlier this month as part of a new, four-year contract agreement with state workers who are represented by the Communications Workers of America labor union. Murphy received some criticism in the wake of his endorsement of that labor deal after he initially said he didn’t know the total impact it would have on the state budget. Republicans also questioned why Murphy granted raises to the union workers at the same time his budget for fiscal 2019 keeps in place a funding cut for the state’s popular Homestead property tax relief program.

Murphy once again skirted the issue of the cost of the pay hikes in his official statement on Friday, choosing instead to focus on the judicial pay increase and the need for a higher hourly minimum wage, which is currently set at $8.60.

“This long overdue measure marks the first increase in judicial salaries in nearly a decade and is critical to ensuring that we continue to retain and attract quality legal talent to the State bench,” Murphy said.

“As important as it is to make sure judges and senior public servants are justly compensated, we cannot allow ourselves to forget the more than one million hardworking New Jerseyans who are currently struggling to provide for themselves and their families on a substandard hourly wage,” he added.

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