Murphy vs. Legislature: Upcoming budget battle may be as much about party as state

Governor: ‘I will not sign any budget based on numbers that I do not believe are sound and sustainable’

By Tom Bergeron
Trenton | Jun 18, 2018 at 1:09 pm
Editor’s Desk

Perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue — a reversion back to the phrasing and the rhetoric that comes out when one party leader attacks the leaders of the opposing party.

“There’s one party that’s presented a full budget,” Gov. Phil Murphy said at the end of a media conference updating the state’s latest June budget crisis.

“There’s one party here. And it’s me. So, this is what I’m offering. And I stand by it.”

To be clear: This isn’t Party vs. Party.

This is a “Kramer vs. Kramer” fight within the Democratic Party for control of the state.

Republicans are not involved. This is Murphy vs. the Democratic-controlled Legislature, one he subtly and not-so-subtly attacked during the approximately 30-minute press conference.

“I can’t stress enough,” he said. “We’ve been given a verbal summary of a proposed budget, which, by the way, has not been introduced as of 11:15 Monday morning.”

He then held up the 77-page budget his administration presented three months ago.

“This is what we proposed in the middle of March,” he said. “And it was 90 days until we had a verbal conversation which listed some of the items which I now comfortable enough to put up here.

“I think we’ve been quite clear what the elements of our budget are. I think our treasurer has testified four times. I believe each of our cabinet members have testified each, twice. We have been nothing but transparent.”

Murphy said what he has heard from the Legislature does not pass his reality test. That is, the numbers — especially the revenue numbers — have to be real.

“Only I have the authority to certify revenues,” he said. “From Day One, we have been careful and circumspect in our accounting. We are ending the practice perfected under Gov. (Chris) Christie of making numbers fit some personal narrative.

“I will not sign any budget based on numbers that I do not believe are sound and sustainable. And, as we have reviewed the legislature’s proposals — and, by the way, this has been given to me verbally — I do not believe theirs are. I’m not going to certify a budget based on gimmicks. I know what will happen if I do, we’ve seen this before. We’ll just find ourselves right back here next June, if not sooner.”

He said what he’s heard from the Legislature is a copy of what hasn’t worked in the past.

“Let’s be very clear about what the Legislature is proposing: They are proposing almost $1 billion in unstainable revenues,” he said. “They’re in one-shots or two-shots. They’re proposing $450 million in new spending beyond my initial budget. They are including savings and efficiencies that are largely not real — or, at least, achievable in this coming’s year budget.

“Under their proposal, we would close the next fiscal year with a $164 million deficit.”

That, he said, is same-old, same-old.

“When you build a financial house of cards, year after year, and see it fall, year after year, at some point you have to realize that the same old way of doing business in Trenton isn’t working,” he said.

This is really what the next 12 days will be about: The old way (the seasoned legislators who have thus far been one-upping the governor) and the new way (a never-been-a-politician-before governor who feels he has the will of the people behind him) are in opposition.

Murphy tried to say the right things, opening his statement with this:

“There are 12 days left to enact a responsible budget to move New Jersey forward,” he said. “I remain committed to using every available minute to sit down with Senate President (Steve) Sweeney, Speaker (Craig) Coughlin and their teams to hammer this out.

“The people of New Jersey do not want a shutdown. I do not want a shutdown and I’m prepared to do everything in my power to avert a shutdown. But, more importantly, and what I have insisted on throughout this process, is an honest budget that puts New Jersey on a responsible course to a stronger and fairer future through sound and sustainable fiscal practices.”

Murphy tried to downplay the issues with other members of the party.

“I was the national finance chair for this party, so I lived the big tent in my own personal life and you may be living a little bit of that experience as we look at what’s going on here in New Jersey and in Trenton,” he said.

“I think this is a badge of honor for our party: We take all comers. And we should feel really good about that. But when you’re a party that takes all comers, you have to prepare yourself for not always seeing things the same way.”

But in the end, you couldn’t help but feel he was taking the new-sheriff-in-town approach to governing.

“Let there be no doubt about it: I’m not going to sacrifice what I believe are the principals of this state and its middle class in particularly going forward,” he said.

“A budget for the sake of a budget, to kick the can to July 1, will not have my name on it.”

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