Gov. Phil Murphy held a town hall session late last month to introduce Hudson County residents to the second budget he has proposed during his term as governor, which he said was conceived with a stronger middle class in mind.
On March 25, at Colin Powell Elementary School in Union City, Murphy outlined a “blueprint for the middle class,” achieved through fiscal responsibility, increased taxes for millionaires, and investments in education, transportation, and workforce development.
“Someone called me a pro-growth progressive, and I’ll take it,” Murphy said. “It means that you can be both proudly progressive as I am and we are, but you can also stand for growing the economy, creating jobs, and being an adult in terms of balancing books. You don’t make economic progress without social progress, and you don’t make social progress without economic progress.”
Murphy said that the prior administration’s budgeting was skewed toward one end of that spectrum.
“If we grow the economy, but leave a lot of our society behind, what good will that be? That’s the state I inherited from the last guy.”
Murphy said that his “blueprint for the middle class” budget is structured around four pillars.
“We worked with our union brothers and sisters and found savings of $1.1 billion,” Murphy said of the new proposed budget. “It wasn’t that we’re taking coverage away from our public sector employees. We protected their healthcare coverage, but we found ways to make it more efficient so the employee, the state, and taxpayers do better.”
Proof of fiscal responsibility
“Credit rating agencies downgraded us 11 times under the last administration, and we have to draw a line under that,” Murphy said. “We have to show fiscal responsibility. We presented a big surplus in last year’s budget, and this year, an even bigger one.”
Murphy’s targeting a surplus this year of $1.16 billion.
‘All–in investment’ in the middle class
Murphy said that this is the most important pillar, especially in terms of education and transportation.
Education spending is up in the new proposed budget by more than $200 million. Last year’s budget contributed $350 million more to education funding than Christopher Christie’s final budget as governor. Murphy aims to expand pre-K programs throughout the state, and make community college free, initially for low-income New Jersey residents.
“This year’s NJ Transit budget was $407.5 million,” Murphy said. “Before I got there it was $100-something million. If you look at NJ Transit during the last administration, your fares went up 36 percent during those eight years. I always ask, ‘Did your commuting experience go up 36 percent?’ Hardly.”
Murphy said the fourth pillar may prove crucial to ramping up investments in transportation, education, and infrastructure.
“If we’re serious about all-in investment in the middle class, we’ve got to stop making the middle class bear the price of all of it,” Murphy said.
He outlined proposed tax reforms.
“If you’re a company and refuse to give your employees a healthcare plan, and 50 or more of your employees are on Medicare or Medicaid as a result, we’re gonna ask you to pay a fee, $150 per person on Medicaid, to help us share that burden.”
State legislators across the country are also proposing a per-pill tax on opioid sales to fund treatment initiatives for opioid addiction. Murphy backs that idea.
“If you’re an opioid manufacturer or distributor, we’re asking you to pay a small per-pill tax to help us fund programs we need to beat back the opioid scourge,” he said.
Finally, Murphy announced a proposal similar to last year’s: the millionaire’s tax. Last year’s proposed tax on millionaires was watered down by state legislators. In 2018, what was supposed to be a more than 10 percent income tax rate for those making seven figures became an income tax rate of more than 9 percent for those making $5 million or more.
Murphy said he’s still operating with the budgetary aftermath of the Christie administration: budgetary rollbacks on education, transportation, and environmental initiatives, and 11 consecutive state downgrades from credit rating agencies.
“I inherited a state where politics was put ahead of kids, a state where transportation was ignored almost completely,” Murphy said. “The state was a train wreck when it comes to the environment.”
Murphy anticipates a Department of Environmental Protection energy master plan that will bring New Jersey’s energy infrastructure to 100 percent renewable by 2050.
“[President Donald Trump] talked about drilling for oil and gas off the Jersey Shore,” Murphy said. “Are you kidding me? We’re gonna put windmills off the Jersey Shore. I signed us onto the Paris Climate Accord.”
Working with Feds
Murphy said that much of the budget, and progress across the state, is contingent on finding compromise with the federal government, despite the apparent gap between Murphy’s administration and that of President Trump.
“If you followed my administration every day and saw the actions we took, the time we spent, or the energies we applied, an extraordinary amount of that day is dedicated toward compensating for or mitigating what President Trump is trying to do to the state of New Jersey,” Murphy said.
“Dreamers, who are every bit as American as my four kids, not only do they have access to in-state tuition for education, but they have access to in-state financial aid. Anyone, as long as they take or pass a test, regardless of other status, should be able to get a New Jersey driver’s license.”
Murphy also touched on Trump’s refusal to help fund the Gateway Tunnel project, a refusal that legislators have dubbed a “ticking time bomb.” Planners at the Regional Plan Association project said that an operational collapse of the only tunnel going into New York City across the Hudson River will be economically devastating for the Northeast.
Trump has scrapped an arrangement made under President Obama to construct the tunnel under a 50-50 split between state and federal funding.
“We need Donald Trump to step up and fund the Gateway Tunnel under the Hudson River,” Murphy said. “Twenty percent of the American economy goes through that tunnel, and our president rates it as a low priority. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
For updates on this and more check hudsonreporter.com, or follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.