Beef with Norcross, Sweeney threatens governor’s big ticket agenda items

If Gov. Phil Murphy was feeling any stress over the commencement of open hostilities with the state’s southern political power structure, he wasn’t showing it at Thursday morning’s tourism industry event. Even later in the morning, sharing the podium with Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Murphy was his usual genial self, playfully name checking his guests.

But, underneath the cavalier veneer, Murphy is entering the most contentious period of his governorship. His big ticket agenda items are all but dead, or dying. And what was once a percolating, but mostly behind the scenes, squabble with Senate President Steve Sweeney and his main political benefactor George Norcross, has erupted into a bare knuckles brawl over tax incentives in Camden.

“He thinks he’s the King of England and Mrs. thinks she’s the Queen of England and they don’t have to answer to anybody,” said Norcross in an explosive interview with NJ Advance Media. “And they’ve gone out there recklessly, stupidly and incompetently time and time again.”

Talking about a man’s wife? Too Far? Murphy didn’t take the bait when asked about it Thursday.

“My biggest issue, and I’ll answer your question, is very hard for an Irishman to be referred to as the King of England,” joked Murphy. “I’m still coming to grips with that I’ll have to admit.”

The speaker steered clear.

“I am not going to comment on that right now,” said Coughlin.

First lady aside, the situation has now gotten to the point where Norcross is talking openly about a primary challenge to Murphy in 2021, something that has been mentioned before — did someone say Steve Sweeney — but that’s two years away. Thursday, the governor’s millionaire’s tax plan and the legalized marijuana initiative both seem far, far away. Murphy almost conceded that legal weed is probably going to have to be decided by voters in 2020.

“The referendum has always been out there as an option. Only one state has done this legislatively and that’s Vermont. We have felt that this is a better way to go. It takes more courage. It’s a tough vote for many. We understand that,” Murphy explained. “There’s an enormous amount of complexity, particularly the social injustices, which is how I came to supporting this, so that’s in my opinion, still the preferred route. I’ll speak for myself, I want to try to exhaust that with the leadership before we think about plan B.”

Murphy, Coughlin and Sweeney were supposed to get together Thursday with weed, and taxes, and tax incentives on the agenda. Sweeney said he’s launching his own investigation into the state’s tax incentives program.

“We want to get to the bottom of everything to see what was right, what’s wrong. What we can do better. Listen, we can always do better,” said Sweeney. “So at the end of the day, we’ll be putting a committee together that will really delve in and take a deep dive into this and we’ll lay out both sides to come forward and explain things.”

How bad are things getting? Thursday’s meeting of the big three, scheduled to discuss important legislative issues, turned into a duet when the Senate president canceled at the last minute.