Murphy indicates possible 2019 tax increase, drawing ire from both parties

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

For this fiscal year, Gov. Phil Murphy and the Legislature raised taxes by $1.4 billion. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said in August he won’t support any tax hikes next year. Senate President Steve Sweeney has suggested he won’t either.

At a news conference on Dec. 19, we asked Murphy where he stands heading into 2019.

“It’s too early to tell. We’re still in the early stages. I don’t think we give our budget address until, now the first week of March — it moved back a week — so 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. So I think we have to ask ourselves is the middle class getting the shake that they deserve; are the folks who are working poor or in poverty, are they getting the pathway into the middle class that they deserve; is everybody paying their fair share? Those are questions that I still think are relevant, but it’s too early to tell how that all comes out,” Murphy said.

That answer provoked an outcry. Republican state chairman Doug Steinhardt almost immediately put out a statement saying: “When leaders speak of tax increases, even casually, it breeds economic uncertainty, especially in a tax climate as unfriendly as New Jersey’s. … If we don’t take the indiscriminate tax hikes off the table, then businesses and the well-paying jobs that come with them will take New Jersey off the table. It’s that simple.”

Sweeney weighed in the next morning, saying, “There is a path forward for New Jersey … but tax increases are not part of the solution. Until we make the desperately-needed structural reforms to government spending and fiscal practices, we will not consider tax increases.”

The next day’s newspapers took notice. And Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick followed with this: “Taxpayers should beware. After raising $1.4 billion in new taxes last year, Murphy may do it again. Republicans in the Assembly will stand united to defend taxpayers.”

We asked Seton Hall political science professor Matt Hale whether Murphy made a mistake.

“It does show that the governor doesn’t quite understand how bad taxes are for people in New Jersey. I think it was a bit of a mistake, and there’s a lot of other ways to answer that question. He just seemed to say, ‘Oh, sure, I might raise your taxes’ and I don’t think that went over well with anybody,” Hale said.

So what would have been a better way of saying it?

“You know, I think what he would have to say is, ‘Look, we’ve done a lot already. We already accomplished a great deal. I know we can do more in the future and I look forward to working with the Legislature to make that happen.’ It doesn’t exactly answer your question, but it sort of moves the ball along and it doesn’t commit him, or put him in a position, where he’s saying I’m going to raise your taxes,” Hale said.

The other way of seeing it is that by saying everything is on the table, Murphy is keeping his options open so that if he does have to raise a tax next year nobody can accuse him of lying about it back in December.