Gov. Phil Murphy returned from his overseas vacation and jumped right back into the political fray Thursday, fielding pointed questions on a range of controversial topics during a visit to Union County intended to boost economic development.
The governor, who had vacationed with his family at their Italian villa, defended large salary hikes given to eight NJ Transit executives this May — even as beleaguered riders continue to endure leaking buses and a plague of train cancellations. Murphy said the audit he had ordered of NJ Transit recommended the move and that the agency had eliminated other positions.
“Paying the right amount to get the right talent is something that makes sense, in terms of the audit recommendation that we’re committed to,” Murphy said. “Make sure you get the right talent, not some political crony that you want to park somewhere.”
Two of those NJ Transit executives have political connections to Murphy, as reported in the New Jersey Globe. The governor’s office, meanwhile, released figures showing that other mass transit agencies pay comparable salaries.
State Sen. Loretta Weinberg took issue with the comparison. “Perhaps we can compete with the better service provided by those industry competitors!” said the Bergen County Democrat in a statement. “We need NJ Transit’s plans […] for how this agency can fulfill the basic transportation needs of our commuters.”
Murphy said the idea behind the raises was specifically designed to boost NJ Transit’s performance.
“Our objective here, as I’ve said many times, is to bat a thousand. But you need to put the right team on the field to have any realistic chance so that you can bat a thousand,” he said.
The governor had come to the Nokia Bell Labs site in Murray Hill to discuss innovative economic development.
Afterwards, he told reporters he welcomed Senate President Steve Sweeney’s statements that he intended to push one more time for legalizing recreational marijuana — perhaps in the Legislature’s lame-duck session — before putting the measure up for public referendum in 2020.
“The status quo is completely and utterly unacceptable,” the governor said. “So getting something to happen sooner — if we have a real shot at it — I’d be all in for that.”
On other issues Murphy said he remains unwilling to renew the Economic Development Authority tax credit programs for a few more months without a whole different set of incentives. He also discussed his administration’s firing of 30 Schools Development Authority staffers — 27 of them hired by its former CEO Lizette Delgado-Polanco — in apparent violation of proper protocols. She resigned in April.
“We’ll learn from it. At the end of the day, the buck stops with me. I’m not happy with what had transpired,” Murphy said. “We have to make sure we don’t go down that path again.”
Finally, the governor reacted to recent mass shootings in the U.S. He stopped short of blaming President Trump directly for the shootings, but maintained that he bore some responsibility.
“I don’t draw the line directly, but I do, without question, believe that by his words and lack of action a permission slip has been given to folks who are at the fringe to do things that otherwise would not happen,” he said.
Even though New Jersey’s got some of the toughest gun laws in the nation, the governor says he still wants state lawmakers to pass a bill that would track ammunition sales.