Murphy signs budget with few line item vetoes

BY Michael Aron, Chief Political Correspondent |

The big question heading into Gov. Phil Murphy’s budget press conference Sunday was what line items would he cut? The answer? Not many.

He cut $38 million out of shared services grants, $5 million from Cooper University Health Care, $4 million from school choice, $1 million from East Orange General Hospital and $500,000 from a Rutgers Camden workforce study.

Murphy assembled a roomful of supporters to celebrate the end of the budget process.

“I have signed this budget, but not without deep changes. Not without setting aside funds for our future and not without ensuring that it all adds up,” said Murphy.

In fact, he agreed with most of the Legislature’s major changes — $50 million extra for NJ Transit, $50 million more for extraordinary special education, $65 million for direct service professionals who care for the disabled.

He lost the argument for a millionaire’s tax, and he lamented that Sunday.

“I’m on the side of putting the needs of New Jersey’s families ahead of the wealthy, ahead of privileged insiders and ahead of powerful special interests,” Murphy said.

“At the end of the day we gave him a very solid budget. I’m glad he recognized that. He absolutely vetoed very little,” Senate President Steve Sweeney said.

Sweeney held his own press conference Sunday. He thanked the governor for acknowledging a good budget, but also pushed back. Murphy had used the phrase, “whose side are you on?” six times.

“The simple question that should drive all our actions is this: whose side are you on?” Murphy said.

Sweeney answered him.

“I’m on the side of all 9 million people in this state, not just some. When the governor talks about the middle class being public employees, and by the way they are, what about the hotel workers? What about the store clerks?,” Sweeney asked.

At his Iselin law office Monday, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin expressed satisfaction with the budget.

“It was a strong budget, and I think that’s reflected both in the governor’s comments and the fact that he ultimately signed it with a small amount of line items because it reflected a good, strong middle class budget,” Coughlin said.

Last year the three Democrats stood together on June 30 to announce a deal after bitter negotiations. This year Murphy stood alone, with a teleprompter, while Sweeney listened from the back of the room.

The millionaire’s tax continues to be the issue that divides them. Sweeney and Coughlin say the revenue isn’t needed.

“This wasn’t the time for a millionaire’s tax. Not this year. We didn’t need that revenue source yet,” Coughlin said.

Murphy vows to fight on.

“I am really, with a couple of exceptions, really happy that we got what we got in our budget. We got the overwhelming percentage of our priorities, and to me that’s a huge deal. We didn’t get tax fairness. I don’t know if it’s tomorrow, next month, two years from next month, I don’t know, but we’re not relenting,” he said.

Sweeney saw it differently.

“This actually reminds me of Donald Trump in some ways. He declares victory after he doesn’t get his way,” Sweeney said.

Speaking of Donald Trump, the president tweeted about all this Monday.

“Congratulations to legislators in New Jersey for not passing taxes that would have driven large numbers of high-end taxpayers out of the state. Many were planning to leave and will now be staying,” he said.

Murphy replied, “We all know Donald Trump is fighting for millionaires like himself. I’m fighting for New Jersey’s middle class and all those working to get there.”

“I think that the president has more important things to work on than worrying about the New Jersey budget,” said Coughlin.

On the substance of the budget, the three leaders are pretty much in accord — it’s good and solid. But on the rhetoric there is still disagreement and a bit of irritation.