By some accounts, Gov. Phil Murphy’s first year in office ended with a thud instead of a bang. That’s because he followed up a tough budget fight by failing to get his top priorities like a $15 minimum wage and legalized marijuana through the Legislature before the end of the year.
But amid those setbacks were also many policy victories — and the governor has shown heading into a new year that he’s not afraid to flex his muscles when dealing with the Legislature’s entrenched leadership.
Murphy, a first-term Democrat, listed a host of policy accomplishments yesterday during an event at the St. James AME Church in Newark that his office billed as a review of the governor’s “first-year achievements.”
The governor cited new gun reforms, toughened state gender pay-equity regulations and increased funding for public education among his successes. He also said a breakthrough with lawmakers on the minimum wage seems to be very close despite missing his own end-of-the-year goal for it.
“We’ve gotten a lot more done than I ever thought we would,” Murphy told reporters after the event. He also didn’t shy away from talking about his decision to speak out against a redistricting proposal that Democratic legislative leaders sought to fast-track before the holidays but ultimately pulled back amid a deluge of criticism.
Disagreements with legislative leaders? ‘You bet’
“Are we going to have disagreements? You bet,” Murphy said of his relationship with the legislative leaders. “Are we going to be bashful about them? We will not be.”
A newcomer to public office, Murphy seemed ready from the get-go to quickly move the state in a new direction after eight years under Republican predecessor Chris Christie. But even as Murphy worked well with legislative leaders on issues related to healthcare, the environment, guns and workplace regulations, other measures that might have seemed shoo-ins for a majority Democratic Legislature like marijuana legalization and the $15 minimum wage eventually stalled as lawmakers expressed their own concerns.
Murphy faced pushback from Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) as he attempted to enact $1.7 billion in tax hikes during the budget season earlier this year. Included in his tax package was a millionaires-tax proposal that Murphy had frequently touted during his successful campaign in 2017.
In the end, the three leaders nearly brought on a shutdown of state government as they didn’t find common ground on the budget until the 11th hour. When the dust settled, Sweeney and Coughlin were able to force Murphy to scale back his broad tax-hike agenda and to accept a higher income-tax rate only for earnings over $5 million. On the spending side of the ledger, however, Murphy was able to score increased funding for his top priorities like K-12 education, preschools, mass transit and county college tuition aid.
“We had what I thought was a very good budget,” Murphy said yesterday. “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but we got a whole lot.”
What’s up with marijuana and minimum wage?
As legislative activity picked up following this year’s midterm congressional elections, passing the $15 minimum wage and legalizing marijuana became the governor’s top priorities. But earlier this week lawmakers in both houses of the Legislature held their final voting sessions of 2018, and neither of those items made it onto to their year-end agenda even after Murphy met face-to-face with the legislative leaders last week to hash out policy differences.
Both Murphy and the legislative leaders have signaled their differences on the minimum wage; these primarily center on carveouts from a full wage hike for some employee groups like teenagers and seasonal workers and are likely to be worked out in early 2019.
“I think we’re close on minimum wage,” Sweeney told reporters on Monday.
Marijuana legalization has proven to be the more difficult issue, with many Democrats remaining uncertain about voting for it, but Murphy suggested yesterday that progress is also being made on that front with the legislative leaders.
“I would hope we can get to common ground sooner than later,” he said.
He was against the redistricting plan
Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University, said he believes it’s just a matter of time before lawmakers vote to approve both the minimum-wage and marijuana-legalization bills.
“I seriously doubt anybody thinks they are dead forever,” Dworkin said. “Everybody is on board with the end goal, it’s just a matter of getting there.”
While lawmakers have not been making it easy for Murphy to advance some of his legislative goals, in recent weeks he has been pushing back and making life more difficult for them too. The governor was outspoken about their redistricting plan, which sought a proposed constitutional amendment to overhaul the way the state’s legislative districts are redrawn. With the proposal viewed by many as a power grab and amid mounting criticism from liberal groups that make up part of Murphy’s base, Sweeney and Coughlin decided to retreat.
“This redistricting proposal, I was not buying that from moment one and I was not bashful about it,” Murphy said yesterday.
The governor also recently vetoed a measure favored by Sweeney that would have moved employees of county colleges into a new health-benefits group.
The governor said his approach for 2019 with Democratic legislative leaders “depends on what (the issue) is.”
“We should be able to continue to find common ground and I expect we will in 2019,” he said.
Brennan investigation casts shadow
But looming in the background for Murphy is the ongoing legislative investigation into how the governor’s transition team and administration hired a campaign official who had been accused of rape by another Murphy loyalist for a top job at the Schools Development Authority. So far, the investigation has not revealed any evidence that Murphy was fully aware of what was happening or participated in a coverup.
Meanwhile, the full Assembly is up for re-election in 2019, injecting a new dynamic into the political calculations in Trenton. And pressure points will also likely remain as legislative staffers who were battle-hardened by their dealings with Christie’s administration move into a second year of working with Murphy’s own largely inexperienced staff.
Another factor that’s influencing relations in Trenton, according to Dworkin, is that Murphy’s 2017 election-night victory didn’t bring with it a landslide of new Democratic lawmakers riding his coattails. In fact, many candidates distanced themselves from Murphy’s agenda to secure victory, he said. That means their futures aren’t directly linked to the governor’s success going forward.
“That affects you when you have to rally everybody on governing on the tough issues,” Dworkin said.