For Democrats the year started with great promise — control of the Legislature and the front office and an agenda that had broad support across the state — but as the year ends, the report card for the first year of the Murphy administration is a mixed bag.
Some early successes were tempered by an inability to see eye to eye with legislative leaders, despite reports of progress at a meeting earlier this week. Observers say it was a one step forward, two steps back kind of year for the governor, despite his feeling that he’s done well and is doing well.
“I don’t accept the premise in the sense if you look at exactly what we’ve gotten done in the state in the first 11 months, we’ve moved the needle dramatically,” Murphy said. “There’s a lot of common ground. The needle is moving. I would also say this: We have a long way to go, so I’m not spiking any footballs — to use another sports analogy. Eleven months in, we’ve got a lot more done than I was expecting, but we’ve got a lot of work still to do. … So the fact of the matter is, if you had a video camera of the meeting that the leadership and we had on Thursday, you would have been struck by the fact that it was a very good give and take. So the fact of the matter is, I think we’re on a record pace to sign more first year governor bills than any governor, at least since Gov. Whitman, and I think we have a shot at blasting through that. So for all of this inside Trenton narrative, we’ve gotten a lot done.”
But not on the minimum wage or marijuana legalization, which are two big ticket items. Some of the reporters who cover the governor full time say it’s been a rocky road in 2018, and that 2019 might not be any smoother.
“This point has been made over and over again by reporters reporting on the three principals — the leaders of the Senate and Assembly and the governor not being able to get along,” said NJ Advance Media reporter Matt Arco. “It’s just frivolous reporting, that it doesn’t have any real merits, it’s just backroom gossip. But at the end of the day, if you can’t accomplish your main goals, things that you all agree on, it’s because you’re not getting in the room, you’re not talking, you’re not hammering out and forging a compromise and then that affects the rest of the state. Something as small as minimum wage, recreational marijuana legalization, to ending the bear hunt — something Phil Murphy promised that he was going to do — he’s not able to do because he can’t get along with Steve Sweeney.”
“But I do think the one good thing is that they did meet the other week, or this week, and it seems like they’re talking. They sat in a room for a couple hours, so that was huge,” said Katherine Landergan, a reporter for Politico New Jersey.
So, what can we look forward to in 2019? Will the governor finally fix his relationship with the leadership? Will weed ever be legal? Will some people really have to wait 11 years to reach the state’s minimum wage?
“Well, I think marijuana legalization is really crucial,” said Bergen Record political columnist Charles Stile. “I think that he’s put a lot of political capital behind that, and now it’s not just political capital. It’s raw revenue numbers now because we’re already beginning this fiscal year with a hole in our budget. He estimated, I believe it was $60 million anticipated in revenue with a Jan. 1 startup. We’re not going to see a Jan. 1 startup. We may not even see it until the next fiscal year which begins on July 1, so I think the combination of fiscal and political capital make that tied to legalization, to make that a priority issue.”
“I think just continuing to improve relationships the Legislature, specifically with Sweeney. How you accomplish that, I don’t know. I’d probably get paid a lot more money than I do if I knew the answer to that,” Landergan said.
“I think we can all look to who he chooses for his next chief of staff. If he chooses his chief of staff that will be adversarial and does what he’s done to this point to dig in and not work with the Legislature, try to fight them, if he picks an individual that will represent that, then we know how next year’s going to go. If he picks an individual that’s sort of an olive branch, that can work well with the legislative leaders and bridge this divide, I say look to that and that dictates the next year,” Arco said.
Bottom line? We can tell you what 2018 was like, but if you try to predict what 2019 will be like, that’s a fool’s errand because these are human beings we’re talking about and they are by their very nature unpredictable, doubly so when their business is politics and government.