Facing Large Financial Hurdles, Phil Murphy Sticking To Costly Plan For NJ

Gov.-elect Phil Murphy plans to move ahead with a long and costly list of policy proposals once he takes office, despite identifying signs of greater financial instability in the month since winning the election.

In one of his first interviews since being elected in November to succeed Republican Gov. Chris Christie, Murphy, a Democrat, said he has yet to define his vision for his first 100 days in office but expects it to rest largely on two points: reversing the conservative policies of Christie and improving the economy to benefit the poor and middle class.

But even as legislative leaders have expressed doubt about how — or even whether — to move ahead on some of Murphy’s central economic promises, such as raising taxes on high earners and increasing the minimum wage statewide to $15 an hour, Murphy said he remains committed to seeing them through to bolster a progressive path forward.

Murphy has also promised to legalize recreational marijuana, provide free community college and start the second state-run bank in the country.  

“I want to do things that nobody else in America is doing,” Murphy said.

Murphy faces considerable headwinds when he takes office on Jan. 16. He sent a letter last week to Christie identifying what he called “areas of concern.” Murphy said the purpose of the letter, first reported by Politico New Jersey, was to convey to Christie “as constructively as possible” that “the financial health of this state is paramount.” Politico put the potential deficit at $1.8 billion, although it is unlikely to reach that high, and Christie said in a letter responding to Murphy that the budget is in “good shape.”

But there are other pressing problems. A report released last week by a panel commissioned by Christie presented an overwhelming future for the pension system if no significant, structural changes are made soon. And an overhaul in the tax code moving through Congress could hit New Jersey property owners hardest, which has prompted Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a fellow Democrat, to consider backing off his support of a so-called millionaire’s tax that Murphy has included in a $1.3 billion plan for new revenues. The incoming Democratic Assembly speaker, Craig Coughlin, has said the federal tax plan should “give all of us pause.”

Republicans in Washington, D.C., are working to reconcile tax bills that, as written, are largely viewed as potentially harmful to property owners in New Jersey. Murphy said high earners here might be hurt by the tax plan, but their incomes would not.

“We’re still committed to it,” he said of the millionaire’s tax. He added that there is “a question of tax equity,” that the middle class and those aspiring to become part of it have borne the financial burden, and that his fellow millionaires are still “going to do just fine on their income tax” if the overhaul is passed. “Better than just fine.”

Murphy is also committed to a $15 minimum hourly wage, even as Sweeney and Coughlin have not agreed on how exactly it should be implemented. They have said they plan to increase the wage, which is currently $8.44 an hour, but Sweeney has supported “carve-outs” and expressed a desire to phase the wage increase in over a longer period of time than the three to four years that Murphy has backed. Murphy said Monday that “it’s a multi-year step to get” to $15 an hour.

Murphy also wants to eventually provide free community college to state residents. He said initial estimates of its costing between $200 million and $400 million may have been off. It could be $200 million “at most,” he said.

“We’d have to find the money for that. The good news on that is it’s not as expensive as I thought it was going to be,” Murphy said.

Murphy, who has never held elected office, said his transition is a work in progress and he is still trying to figure out the best path forward. It is a transition consisting of about 600 people and 14 committees charged with filling out the future administration and its policies. But the philosophy, he said, is to focus on the economy and "standing for the right things again." 

“I’m not sure I have all the answers yet, either. We’re trying to build that,” Murphy said. “You don’t have 14 transition committees just for the heck of it. We’re trying to build the playbook as we sit here.”

But Murphy said there are some areas he intends to focus on initially: equal pay for equal work, earned sick leave, college affordability and “beginning the work on the public bank,” an idea that has been put into practice in North Dakota. Murphy said he also intends to focus on climate change policies and begin to make good on his campaign promise to sign gun-safety legislation that Christie has vetoed.

Murphy said that reversing Christie’s policies where he can is part of his overall plan for New Jersey, but that alone “doesn’t do it for me.” 

“I think that implies a defense of sort of getting back to par, and I would like to think we’re going to be better than just getting back to par," Murphy said.

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