Looking ahead at what’s ahead in 2019

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

You can polish up the crystal ball if you want, but it’s pretty clear what big stories are coming up in 2019 because, for the most part, the stories began in the year just past. But how these stories all play out will determine a lot about the political future of a few and what impact they’ll have on the many.

Starting with the state budget — It will be Gov. Phil Murphy’s second — and his budget address in 2019 will likely sound a familiar refrain: “I pledge to create a stronger and fairer New Jersey.”

But the road to a stronger, fairer New Jersey runs through the Legislature, and last year, you may recall, that road was rocky that almost ended in a state government shutdown.

“Today the era of budget gimmicks is ending and the era of a stronger and fairer New Jersey that works for every family is just beginning,” Murphy said in June of last year.

As 2019 dawns, another bruising budget fight seems inevitable. The governor hasn’t ruled out tax hikes in 2019. Talk of a millionaire’s tax has been heard, again.

“It’s too early to tell, but it’s not too early to talk about principles, things that we care about, and tax fairness is still on that list,” Murphy said in December.

But Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin says he won’t post a budget that includes any new taxes. And Senate President Steve Sweeney has said no new taxes. period, full stop.

“The governor has indicated he may look for new taxes. The Senate president had adamantly said there will be no new taxes. The speaker, all of whose members are up, will not tolerate new taxes,” said Politifax editor Nick Acocella.

So summer 2019 could end up looking a lot like summer 2018.

Complicating budget matters is revenue, around $90 million initially anticipated from legal marijuana sales taxes, but unrealized because a legal weed bill has stalled. Maybe sport betting, which took off in New Jersey in 2018, will help fill that gap. That will play out over the course of the year, but we’ll know in a couple of weeks whether a tax amnesty plan will generate a couple of hundred million dollars as Coughlin had hoped.

Also stalled is a $15 minimum wage bill promised by Democrats. Too many exceptions and too slow to get there, says the governor, echoing the sentiment of the party’s progressive wing.

The undercurrent to all this is the still-dicey dynamic between the governor and Sweeney, which they insist is a figment of our collective imagination.

“The responsibility is always on the governor to make that relationship work — not on the Senate president, not on the speaker. The governor has to make those relationships. You’re the boss. You need to act like it,” said former Gov. Chris Christie.

“Part of me believes, though, that that one can be fixed,” said Bergen Record columnist Charles Stile. “Steve Sweeney and the South Jersey Democrats, with their confederates in Middlesex and Essex County, are not going to go anywhere. I think there has to be a kind of pragmatic decision to say let’s find a way to deal with them because right now the strategy, or lack of strategy that we have right now, hasn’t been working.”

Some suggest that the Sweeney/Murphy standoff is informing the tone of the Katie Brennan hearings. Brennan’s alleged sexual assault and the aftermath sent a shock through the Trenton establishment, exposing the male-dominated world of political campaigns and calling into question the policies — or lack thereof — that govern Trenton’s hiring practices.

“That has the potential to be very, very explosive. The jury’s out on who knew what when, so it’s hard to talk about, but the hearings themselves have been dramatic and absolutely gripping. We’ll see where it goes,” said Acocella.

So far, no one has suggested that the governor knew more than he says he knew, but how much the hearings distract from the business at hand, especially as budget season approaches, will be something to watch.

New Jersey’s bluer-than-ever Congressional delegation will be sworn in this week and will have an immediate impact on who will be selected as the new House speaker, not to mention the government shutdown, which is now in its second week.

But all eyes will be on New Jersey’s junior senator, who said he was taking the holidays to huddle with family and close advisers before he decides whether to make a run for president himself.

“Let’s hope we have a robust Democratic primary field because any Democrat is better than the president we have right now,” said Sen. Cory Booker.

Booker would be entering a field that now officially includes Sen. Elizabeth Warren, but could also include Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bloomberg, and a bunch of others that you probably have never even heard of.

Republicans have their standard-bearer, for better or worse, but the battle for the hearts and minds of Republicans could heat up in 2019 as the president hardens his lines. Evidence of that can be seen in Jersey where the party chair and the Assembly Republican leader have been squaring off over whether New Jersey’s GOP will be Trumpier or more Tom Kean-like.

Donald Trump is not the leader of the Republican Party in Trenton,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.

The party’s chairman Doug Steinhardt, though, doesn’t see things the same way.

“While I appreciate Assemblyman Bramnick’s desire to speak out about the direction of our state party,” he said, “I think it is important to make clear that he does so as an individual and not on behalf of the NJGOP.”

Bramnick and the rest of the 80-member Assembly — including its 26 Republicans — will all be up for election in the fall. Some in the Trump wing of the party have suggested that Bramnick should face a primary challenger as punishment for speaking out against the president, but with Trump likely facing more inquiries from Congress and the Mueller investigation still looming, that could prove to be a moot point for the GOP.

In 2019 we’ll also see what impact the loss of the SALT deduction will have on the state’s real estate market and what progress occurs on funding for the Gateway Tunnel project. And just for kicks, we’ll have a new book from Christie, who may or may not tell all about the bridge, the president, and his own future — which may or may not impact what happens to the rest of us in 2019.