Has Murphy Made Good on His Promises? Taking Stock at the 1-Year Mark

The governor hasn’t realized several of his top priorities. Some observers blame inexperience or his desire to be liked, but one lays the fault squarely at the door of Sweeney and Coughlin

Credit: NJTV News
Gov. Phil Murphy
Gov. Phil Murphy is getting a passing grade or better for his first year in office from some organizations and special-interest groups, but NJ Spotlight’s review of his major promises found mixed results.

Murphy, who delivers his first State of the State address to the Legislature today on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his taking office, has taken steps toward accomplishing nearly all 22 concrete promises made in his inaugural speech. He has also taken some action on close to 40 percent of another 75 specific pledges made during his gubernatorial campaign.

But he has also learned that being arguably the most powerful governor in the nation does not give him the ability to fully enact his agenda, even when his party controls both houses of the Legislature. To date, he has been unable to fulfill several of his major inaugural promises such as a $15 minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana, and a millionaires tax — not for want of trying. The stumbling block: pushback from, most notably, Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

The price of inexperience

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, described the governor as “following and not leading” and attributed many of his problems to his lack of political experience and his desire to be liked.

“He is waiting for the legislature to move on marijuana legalization and minimum wage instead of walking down the street and not leaving until he gets deals done,” Hale said. While both Murphy and legislative leaders profess to have the same priorities, they differ on specific solutions.

Cliff Zukin, an emeritus professor of political science and public policy at Rutgers University and senior adviser to Rutgers’ Eagleton Poll, put a little more of the blame on Sweeney than Murphy. If grading Murphy, Zukin said he would give him a C, incomplete, or low pass.

“But I’m not sure that is all his fault. I really wonder how much he would have gotten done if he had not had an obstructionist senate president kicking sand in his face,” Zukin said.

He noted that many have blamed an inexperienced Murphy and his staff as major problems to getting his agenda completed.

‘Bullies and bosses’

“But from where I sit it has been the Senate president who has been the biggest obstacle in Murphy getting his agenda through. After all, it includes some items the Dem Legislature passed when (Chris) Christie was governor,” Zukin continued. “Still … if you look at how Trump or Christie used the power of the executive office, Murphy has not made anybody really pay a price for standing in his way. And it may be that bullies and bosses really only respect power, thinking accommodation is a sign of weakness. It’s not pretty or healthy, but it is the Jersey way.”

Some special-interest groups, such as the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, gave higher grades to reflect how Murphy has taken action on issues they care about.

“The governor’s first year has been a whirlwind of pro-environmental actions and commitments to conservation, including creating 100,000 jobs in energy efficiency, reversing rollbacks such as the Highlands Septic Density rule, standing up to polluters and developers, and making sweeping changes at the DEP that puts science-based decision making a top priority,” said Ed Potosnak, the fund’s executive director, who gave the Murphy administration a B+.

Still, he continued, that’s lower than the A- the group gave him following his first 100 days in office “because of a lack of appointments to critical regional planning commissions such as the Highlands Council and the Pinelands Commission.”

D for disappointment

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also criticized Murphy for his lack of appointments to important boards, but was harsher. He gave Murphy a D, though saying it was for “disappointment” over actions not taken.

“After eight years of Christie and his attacks on the environment, we were hoping for the Murphy administration to move quickly, but that has not happened,” Tittel said. “There has been some small progress but it is not enough. Gov. Murphy has been in office for 12 months now, but most of Christie’s policies, rules, and standards are still in place. There has not been one original proposed rule, regulation, or standard for the NJDEP yet from the Murphy administration.”

Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said the governor is “proud of the strong environmental progress his administration has made over the past twelve months” and touted a number of his accomplishments that “establish New Jersey’s leadership in the clean energy economy. These include beginning the process to update the state’s Energy Master Plan for the state to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050, opposing federal efforts to allow seismic testing and offshore drilling off the coast, and working to stop the construction of the PennEast Pipeline.”

“Gov. Murphy is committed to protecting the state’s resources and preserving the health and safety of all New Jersey residents,” Bryan said.

Pushing to fulfill promises

A host of advocates for social reforms gathered outside the State House on Monday to push Murphy and lawmakers to complete a number of pledges yet unfulfilled. In addition to the $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana, they also called for giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants and increasing housing opportunities.

“New Jersey has not just a mandate, but a responsibility to demonstrate what justice looks like in action, starting with restoration of the right to vote for people with convictions and a path to marijuana legalization that puts racial justice at the forefront,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

In just his first year, Bryan said Murphy “has done a whole lot of what he promised.” Murphy’s office last month released a two-page list of his first-year accomplishments.

Still, with some major pledges not yet fulfilled, Hale gives Murphy a C or C- at the end of his first year. And that, he says, is being generous.

“He has a long way to go but has shown the potential to get there,” Hale said. “A lower grade is probably what he deserves but it’s always good to be encouraging to new students.”

A Review of the Governor’s Major Promises

NJ Spotlight gathered a list of Murphy’s promises from his inaugural address, as well as significant campaign pledges, to gauge exactly what he has and has not done.

The theme of his inaugural address was a “stronger and fairer New Jersey.” These are the specific promises he made and whether he met them:

  • Fund public schools. Murphy increased K-12 school funding by $351 million but is still a long way from fully funding the state’s school aid formula.
  • Provide property-tax relief. The administration increased the income-tax deduction for property taxes by $5,000 and restored the Homestead Benefit, but continues to calculate rebates from 2006 tax bills and did not provide a cost-of-living increase for Senior Freeze rebates.
  • Make four-year college more affordable. Murphy increased Tuition Aid Grants and the Educational Opportunity Fund, which help thousands of low-income and disadvantaged students better afford college, but he made campaign promise to lower college tuition and increase state aid to colleges and did neither.
  • Free access to community college. Murphy has begun this program, which 13,000 students are expected to qualify for this spring, but it is only for students with incomes of less than $45,000.
  • New training programs for jobs in an innovation-driven economy. The administration has begun a number of initiatives, including apprenticeship programs and an education model that allows students to more quickly earn a degree and get a job in the tech industry.
  • Tools to help small businesses. Murphy has created new lending opportunities and pilot programs, as well as a unit within the Economic Development Authority dedicated to helping small businesses.
  • The wealthiest pay their fair share in taxes. Murphy signed into law a tax increase for those with $5 million or more in income, but he was really looking for — and had promised during the campaign — a tax on all millionaires but could not get lawmakers to agree.
  • Legalize marijuana as part of comprehensive criminal justice reform. While Murphy has reconstituted a commission to re-examine sentencing and committed to continuing the bail reform law, the governor and legislators have been unable to agree on the details for legalizing marijuana for adult recreational use.
  • Create affordable housing. The administration has funded some affordable housing construction and proposed tax credits that it estimates will result in about 2,000 new low-income units, but Murphy also broke a promise he made to stop raiding the state’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund to pay for other programs.
  • Create housing that is safe from lead. Remediating lead contamination is a costly problem that Murphy has yet to find a funding source for.
  • Protect hard-working immigrant families. The administration has allocated $2.1 million to help provide legal representation for those facing immigration problems and issued rules that curtail voluntary cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration officials in most cases. Still, the undocumented cannot legally drive in New Jersey.
  • Accept the reality of climate change and invest aggressively in renewables. Murphy believes climate change is real and has taken steps toward trying to limit New Jersey’s contribution to it, including a commitment to have half of the state’s power come from clean energy by 2030.
  • Uphold the goals of the Paris Climate Accord. New Jersey has joined the U.S. Climate Alliance, which is a group of states committed to achieving the accord’s goals. These include limiting the increase in global temperature to less than 2 degree Celsius.
  • Have a cabinet and leadership team that looks like the state. Murphy’s cabinet is the most diverse in state history and includes a female majority and the state’s first Sikh and Muslim members. The governor also appointed the state’s first full-time chief diversity officer.
  • Balance the budget fiscally and morally. On paper, the budget is balanced. But it does not make the full required pension contribution and the latest revenue projections indicate that its 7.5 percent increase may have been overly optimistic.
  • Support for women’s health and Planned Parenthood. Murphy is spending $7.45 million for Planned Parenthood and other services, which had been cut by Gov. Chris Christie, and has made it easier for women to get contraception.
  • Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The governor has repeatedly called for the higher wage, but he and lawmakers have not yet agreed on how to phase in an increase.
  • Promote equal pay for women. Murphy signed a law guaranteeing equal pay for comparable work last April.
  • Give every worker earned sick leave. The governor enacted a requirement that employers give full-time workers essentially five sick days a year.
  • Tear down barriers to voting. Murphy signed legislation that automatically registers people to vote when they do business at Motor Vehicle Commission offices. But during the campaign he supported other measures that have not yet passed. These include implementing online and same-day registration, letting 17-year-olds vote in a primary if they will turn 18 by Election Day, and expanding early voting during the 15 days before an election.
  • Strengthen gun laws. The governor has signed a host of bills further toughening the state’s laws, including several he backed while campaigning. These include allowing for the court-ordered seizure of the weapons from a person deemed mentally ill and a ban on untraceable “ghost” guns.
  • A final pledge was to “resist every move from President Trump” in a host of areas that would be detrimental to New Jerseyans, including those that would hurt undocumented young adults brought to the United States as children (known as “Dreamers”), gut healthcare, or allow offshore drilling. The administration, largely through the efforts of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, has gotten involved in numerous lawsuits against these and other actions by the Trump administration. In addition, Murphy has criticized Trump’s actions on such issues as eliminating the ability to deduct property taxes on federal income taxes.

    In addition to promises made a year ago, several of Murphy’s campaign pledges are noteworthy because of the emphasis he placed on them while stumping for votes. The governor has three more years in office to work on the ones he has yet to complete.

    Some of the governor’s biggest accomplishments

  • Forgiving students loans for graduates in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), developing a K-12 STEM-oriented curriculum.
  • Expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit and creating a child- and dependent-care tax credit.
  • Stabilizing the state’s individual health insurance market, which led to an average 9 percent decrease in the price of premiums.
  • These pledges are in progress

  • End annual high-stakes PARCC testing of students: The state has taken steps to move away from the controversial exams.
  • Improve NJ Transit and its cooperation with Amtrak and other transit agencies: Murphy more than doubled funding for the agency and NJT has taken numerous steps to improve customer service and work with other agencies, although not all of the specific reforms Murphy had promised have been completed.
  • Ban fracking in the Delaware River and elsewhere, as well as the storage of fracking waste: Murphy has joined with other states to support a fracking ban, but the Delaware River Basin Commission still does not have a complete ban in place.
  • Probably the biggest pledge that Murphy has not acted on was his promise to create a public bank that would use state deposits to finance local investments in infrastructure, small businesses, and student loans. Publicly, there has been no talk of creating the bank for months, but administration officials say it is something staff has been working on and the governor remains committed to this promise.

    NJ Spotlight reporters Tom Johnson, John Mooney, John Reitmeyer, Carly Sitrin and Lilo H. Stainton contributed to this report.

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