From legalizing marijuana to funding the public employee pension system, New Jersey’s incoming governor faces challenges that require investments of time, leadership and communication
Phil Murphy, who today becomes New Jersey’s 56th governor, takes the helm of a state facing numerous challenges – fiscal, infrastructure, and transportation, to name a few. Murphy supported a $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana during his campaign, and now faces the difficulties inherent in bringing those priorities to fruition. Rutgers Today asked several faculty experts about the long road ahead for the new governor.
Q: What advice do you have for governors in general, and for Governor Murphy in particular, for their first year in office?
John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics; director of the Center on the American Governor: Governors are important because state government is important. It is the level charged with melding national laws and policies with local jurisdictions and issues. Its perspective must be broader than that of municipal or county government, but still able to appreciate situations facing neighborhoods and even individual families in ways that generally are inaccessible to federal officials.
Governors themselves are unique among elected officials in the United States by being highly visible and powerful like a president, but also familiar and approachable like a local mayor. While the legislature and sometimes judiciary can play a major role in determining policy, the governor is seen as the voice and face of government in her or his state. And, even in a state of nine million people like New Jersey, it is often relatively easy to put yourself in the governor’s presence at an event in your community or as part of an organized interest group, and feel something of a personal relationship.
Q: During his campaign, Murphy prioritized raising New Jersey’s hourly minimum wage to $15. How strong is public support for this initiative, and what challenges will it face from businesses or other sources?
Heather McKay, director, Education and Employment Research Center, School of Management and Labor Relations: Recent data from the U.S. Census ranks New Jersey 12th highest in the nation in terms of income inequality. Raising the state’s minimum wage would go a long way in bridging that inequality. The workers who would receive a pay increase are overwhelmingly adults who work full-time in regular jobs. Research by New Jersey Policy Perspective notes that one New Jersey worker in four would benefit from the change. This increase will improve their chances of making ends meet and providing for their families in this high-cost state. While some, including the Protect New Jersey Jobs Coalition, have noted their opposition to this policy change, there is a vast amount of research both in New Jersey and in the country demonstrating the benefits of raising the minimum wage on economic activity, job growth and employment. The benefits of this policy change for New Jersey workers and communities far outweigh the perceived drawbacks.
Q: Murphy also said he will seek to legalize marijuana. What safety and/or health concerns should be addressed if this is to happen?
Cristine Delnevo, vice dean, Rutgers School of Public Health: Research suggests marijuana has both therapeutic and harmful effects. Marijuana may affect brain development in young people, so there should be age restrictions on its sale. Many people see marijuana as less dangerous and more socially acceptable than alcohol, and there is data to suggest that opioid-related deaths are fewer in states where marijuana is legal. If New Jersey legalizes marijuana, our lawmakers should ensure that we have good public health surveillance data on patterns of use – not just of marijuana but other products such as alcohol and opioids. The legalization of marijuana in New Jersey may very well impact the use of these products which, when used in extreme ways, are much more harmful than marijuana. There are 88,000 deaths from excessive alcohol use every year, and we are in the midst of a serious opioid epidemic. In contrast, the National Institute on Drug Abuse tells us there are no reports of people dying from marijuana overdose alone. However, we are seeing a rise in morbidity and mortality from driving under the influence of marijuana. Although this is a small fraction of what we see for alcohol, driving under the influence needs monitoring, education and enforcement.
Q: New Jersey’s public employee pension fund is chronically underfunded, contributing to multiple downgrades to the state’s credit ratings. Governor Chris Christie has signed a law requiring that the state make quarterly payments into the pension system. How will Murphy meet this challenge, and how will it affect his ability to meet other budgeting needs?
Marc Pfeiffer, Senior Policy Fellow, assistant director, Local Government Research Center, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy: The unfunded liability of our employee pension and benefit systems are the elephants in the state’s budget house. Add to it school aid funding, rationalizing and resetting services to meet current needs, investing in the economy, fixing a deteriorating infrastructure, and the challenge is huge. We should consider the state’s budget as a whole. Everything is connected, short- and long-term. And the unexpected plays a role; losing the federal income tax deduction of state taxes makes raising those state taxes more challenging than before.
There is no easy budget fix. Solving it requires consultation, leadership, motivation, clear and honest communication with the public, no blame, some shared sacrifice, time, and a sincere desire to get the state on a sustainable fiscal path forward. It’s clear that continually kicking the can down the road will further deteriorate the state’s fiscal condition, its economy, and the confidence of the people in their leaders.
Q: One of the most vexing challenges Murphy must face is transportation funding. NJ Transit reportedly struggles to fund its operations and capital improvement program. Meanwhile, funding for the Gateway Program to expand train capacity under the Hudson River is uncertain. What options are available to Murphy as he addresses these issues?
Jon Carnegie, executive director, Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center, Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy: For at least 20 years, New Jersey’s transportation capital and operating needs have exceeded the funding available to support investment. There has been no political will to face this challenge. Finally, last year, New Jersey’s elected leaders took a big step by increasing the gas tax, and that provided a much needed infusion of capital. Unfortunately, the increase will not be enough to meet a growing list of critical transportation needs, such as the on-going costs of operating public transit services and such projects as the Gateway Tunnel, a new midtown Manhattan bus terminal, and replacing the Lincoln Tunnel Helix. Governor-elect Murphy and his new transportation team will need to tap into non-traditional funding streams, such as increasing rental car fees and creating “transit benefit districts” that permit the assessment of fees on commercial and even residential properties in areas that benefit from public transit services. They might also consider innovative project delivery and financing techniques that bring in private capital to support transportation projects. The governor and legislature may even have to consider some unpopular approaches such as introducing tolls on facilities that are currently toll-free.