In Answer to Governor, Fellow Democrats Hold Back But Republicans Don’t

John Mooney | January 16, 2019 | Politics
Nevertheless, members of governor’s party signal resistance to his critical evaluation of the state’s tax-incentive programs for business

Senate President Steve Sweeney said Gov. Phil Murphy was entitled to a victory lap.
Year One of Gov. Phil Murphy’s time in office was marked by a list of promises, but also a fractious relationship with legislative leaders from his own party that may have prevented the governor from notching more wins.

Judging from the reaction to his first State of the State address yesterday, Year Two may be starting out much the same for Murphy.

Democratic leaders yesterday initially tried to sidestep the press following the governor’s hour-long address, announcing beforehand that they would only be putting out a written statement.

In the end, several key leaders did stop to speak to reporters. While cordial and conciliatory, they were hardly effusive in their praise for either the speech or the governor’s overall blueprint for his second year, which was without what they said was the urgent need to address the state’s fiscal hole.

“Today was a day for the governor to take a victory lap, and he’s entitled to that,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, arguably the governor’s chief intraparty antagonist.

Point of contention

“Really, we did get a lot of things done, and we should be proud of that, from fixing the school funding formula to expansion of pre-K,” Sweeney said. “But we won’t be able to do those things [going forward] if we don’t have the revenue.”

A contentious point for some of Murphy’s fellow Democrats appeared to be the focus in his address on the ongoing scandal over former Gov. Chris Christie’s tax credit and business incentive program. The governor spent the first section of his speech scorching the programs in the wake of an internal audit that has questioned how the money was spent, the validity of the jobs created, and the oversight of the programs by the state’s Economic Development Authority (EDA).

Critical reaction to the comments from business groups and Republicans was to be expected.

“This sounded like a campaign speech,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the minority leader.
“This sounded like a campaign speech to me,” said state Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the minority leader. “Did you hear anything today that changed your mind about planning to leave this state? I didn’t hear one iota of an idea to keep you here.”

In response to that section of the governor’s address, Democrats seemed disinclined to throw the EDA under the bus.

Weinberg: ‘…it was a little overdone’

Several spoke of the businesses in their districts that were helped by the EDA, and while agreeing to the need for reforms, few were backing a complete overhaul.

“It was half his speech,” said state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, the influential Bergen County Democrat. “To me, it was a little overdone.”

State Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor-Marin (D-Essex), chair of the Assembly’s budget committee, said the program had been especially fruitful in her hometown of Newark. “The incentives really, really spurred the economy in Newark,” she said. “It made us viable.”

She and others said they were hopeful that other new initiatives could find a consensus. The two most prominent — and likely-to-be-agreed — of those issues mentioned by Murphy were a new $15 per hour minimum wage and the legalization of adult use of marijuana.

But hints of cooperation?

The former appears to be close to reality, legislators said, while the latter still faces resistance.

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)
“I think anybody who knows New Jersey politics knows there are no fait accomplis,” Weinberg said. “We are really on the road to compromise on $15, but on cannabis, we have a ways to go.”

Still, Weinberg said she saw positive signs of cooperation in just the last week.

“In the last few days, I think the governor has reached out a little more to legislative leadership, at least from my standpoint,” she said. “So, we’ll see. This is a new year.”