Looking ahead to 2018

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

2018 started quietly, which is good, considering the political convulsions we witnessed in 2017. If the past is prologue, then we can expect another bumpy ride in the year ahead. For starters, the president will simply not be denied. The man who turned the country on its ear with what he calls “the largest tax cut in the history of our country.”

The president promises to dominate the year ahead as efforts to pay for the tax cut with spending cuts, not to mention immigration reform and foreign policy issues like North Korea, will surely command our attention. Closer to home, the president’s tax plan will impact New Jersey especially, and not in a good way. Losing your unlimited state and local tax deductions will not only hurt your pocketbook, but it could affect the state’s entire real estate market, especially if this was a year you were expecting to sell.

“It usually comes down to the seller having to make up the difference because maybe the same buyer won’t be able to buy at $400,000, maybe they’ve got to drop their price, so if they’re still going to buy that house that was $400,000, maybe now the person who was selling that house at $400,000 will be selling at $375,000,” explained Bergen County realtor Robin Pierce.

Experts say if there is an impact on the marketplace, you’ll start to see it in April of 2018. As for the state economy as a whole, experts say there’s reason to believe expansion will continue.

“The economy is still not at full capacity, so we’re not running all out,” suggested the chief investment officer of RegentAtlantic, Chris Cordaro. “We’re still slowly getting into this recovery, and the recovery has been slow and steady. It’s been below average economic growth. Usually we want to look at something like three percent or so for GDP growth, we’ve just recently hit that. Since 2009, it’s just been slowly, steadily building. So we still have a lot more room for the economy to keep going. This latest tax policy, that’s going to help things more. So, we’re really starting to level out and sort of reach the peak of it, but we don’t have to be concerned that there’s going to be an abrupt decline.”

And that’s good news for some of the state’s key municipalities. An expanding economy can’t hurt Newark’s hope to attract Amazon’s HQ2 and its 50,000 jobs, a bid which has the official endorsement of the governor, who called Newark “the clear winner of this competition.”

We’ll know by the middle of 2018 whether the $7 billion package of tax incentives will be enough to attract the online retailer. Camden’s renaissance continues apace with a lot of help from the state. Don’t sleep on Kearny, whose status as the next next Brooklyn has been trumpeted by the New York Times. Meanwhile, a new mayor, the arrival of the Hard Rock Casino, new owners for Revel and thousands of new jobs in 2018 could be a genuine sign of an Atlantic City turnaround. Speaking of old resort towns and turnarounds, if you want to vacation in Asbury Park this summer, you better be be ready to lay down some cash — over $400 a night at the Berkley and up to $900 a night at the Asbury.

Asbury Park is where Phil Murphy celebrated election night. He’ll take the oath of office in just a couple of weeks. After eight years of Republican Chris Christie, the Democrat will be both a stylistic and philosophical departure from his predecessor. But thirsty Democrats, parched by years of Christie at the faucet, could find themselves with a glass half empty of kept promises.

“I don’t see how he could satisfy the needs of all the constituent groups that he has promised things to,” said the editor of Politifax, Nick Acocella, who warns Dems to be careful what they wish for because they might just get it. “You may have three liberals running the three most important governmental bodies, but there’s very little wiggle room. There’s very little they can do. The money isn’t there.”

“He’s starting to create a little wiggle room for himself saying ‘oh, this new tax law in Washington is creating a problem. We may not be able to do everything right away.’ That’s not the way he was talking during the campaign, so, you know, you campaign in poetry and you govern in prose, and we’re in the prose period now.” he said.

Activist Analilia Mejia, a high-profile Murphy supporter, doesn’t entirely disagree with Acocella, but she thinks there are policy victories to be had from the new administration — a millionaire’s tax, for instance, which she says could help recalibrate taxes in the state. Voting rights reform, paid sick leave and an increase in the minimum wage are also reachable goals, she says. But in case Murphy tries to hedge a bit, Mejia says activists are ready to keep the pressure on.

“I think it’s really incumbent on activists, on organizations, on general voters and that’s what we’re focused on, instead of lobbying the Senate president and the speaker,” she said. “It’s really educating constituents of what’s at stake. The state cannot afford to have Democrats get in their own way.”

But that’s going to be one of the things to watch in 2018. A three-headed Democratic monster, with each potentially at cross purposes. The relationship between Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney is, at best, icy and Sweeney’s collaborating with the governor on hundreds of lame duck appointments did not sit well with Murphy. But Sweeney, whose bruising victory over an NJEA-backed candidate has him feeling his oats, has already suggested a legislative agenda that might not be in synch with the new governor’s. And, the new Speaker has suggested that he might not be entirely on board with legalizing marijuana. Then, there’s the new lieutenant governor, the ‘take a backseat to no one’ former Assembly Speaker.

“Sheila Oliver is a very dignified, proud person, and she’s going to want her own, not her own portfolio. She’s going to want some independence, and that’s not always great with a lieutenant governor, but on the other hand, you’ve got one who’s able and who’s got a lot of experience and who’s going to have some of her own agenda, and that’s just something he’s gonna have to be able to deal with,” explained former governor Tom Kean Sr.

Just how the Oliver and Murphy tandem will work together is a subject of some debate/concern, and that will be something to watch in 2018.

“He picked somebody who’s not exactly reluctant to express her opinions and he put her in charge of a department that is mighty important,” added Acocella. “Community affairs has a lot of policy implications, so one of the surprises that might come, the governor and the lieutenant governor not being on the same page.”

For Republicans, 2018 is shaping up to be a challenging one for incumbent House members. Leonard Lance, Rodney Frelinghuysen and Tom MacArthur are all expected to face tough challenges from an emboldened Democratic party, which has visions of flipping the House from red to blue after the 2018 midterms. With Republican Frank LoBiondo retiring, Sen. Jeff Van Drew has stepped up to run for the seat. Potential opponents include former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian, which would give the race the added twist of pitting a gay Republican against a Democrat who voted against marriage equality.

Murphy’s progressive agenda, including immigration reform, funding women’s health, the minimum wage and new taxes, is ambitious and he will have to thread the needle on some of his key issues. But it’s the unforeseen things, like a public transit system, that is failing its customers that will require his immediate attention.

“Suffice it to no agency in our government is more in need of a wholesale makeover and re-envisioning than NJ Transit. Enough is enough. It’s time to not just clean the house, but to knock it down and rebuild it,” said Murphy.

Rebuilding is going to mean more funding, and that’s not even counting the huge hole in the Gateway funding that opened up this weekend. That goes for a lot of the Murphy agenda, and one anticipated source of new cash for state government is taxes on legalized marijuana, a done deal supposedly, although there are an increasing number of voices calling for the state to pump the breaks on that idea.

“Actually I’m not sure it’s a done deal yet,” suggested Kevin Sabet, co-founder of Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “We’re getting calls and inquiries daily, from members of the governor’s own party who may not publicly want to show opposition yet, but privately they have a lot of concerns because they see what’s happened in Colorado, more car crashes, more people using. They don’t think the state is ready yet to embark on something so big and then they also say maybe we can just decriminalize possession and work the social justice angle that way; make sure minority populations aren’t thrown behind bars, but do we really need to legalize and have pot shops selling candy and cookies on Main Street?”

That said, the anticipated revenue, some put the number at close to a billion a year after a couple of years, is just too much to pass up, say many Democrats, and 2018 will very likely see a legal marijuana bill end up on the new governor’s desk. Other news items to look for as 2018 dawns include the lasting impact of the Menendez mistrial. Has the senior senator cleared a final hurdle towards reelection? And which Republican will challenge him?

Will the #metoo movement continue to change the landscape of the workplace across the country? And which public figures from the worlds of politics and media will be the next to face a day of reckoning for their actions?

What will Jersey City and Newark do with local control of their schools? Newark will hold a referendum on whether the Board of Education should be elected by residents or appointed by the mayor. That could give Ras Baraka control of a nearly billion dollar department.

Will the new governor keep the same focus on the opioid crisis as the current governor. And speaking of the current governor, who went from Republican savior to the most unpopular governor in state history, what will he do after 16 years in public office?

“It’s so nice that so many of you are so concerned about my employment future,” he told NJTV News. “I don’t have the same level of worry. I figure someone’s got to hire me to do something … I’m available for hire, after the 16th, but you know, it’s all about price at that point.”

Christie will be missed by those who opposed him as much as by his supporters. In tone alone, the state will see a big difference come Jan. 16.

Change is in the air, ripe with opportunity, but also fraught with potential pitfalls in politics, the economy and beyond. We have 12 new months to make a better day or screw things up even more.