Long To-Do List Awaits New Jersey's Next Governor

New Jersey Democrats are gearing up to take over Trenton but face a tight budget as they look to enact far-reaching policy changes.

On Tuesday, Phil Murphy is scheduled take the oath of office to become governor, ending eight years of Republican control of the top office in the Garden State. But Mr. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, faces the tricky task of implementing his progressive agenda in a state that has little money to spare.

Mr. Murphy, 60 years old, ran on a progressive platform that included promises to fully fund the state's public-pension payments and public schools as well as overhaul NJ Transit. He has proposed paying for these and other priorities by reinvigorating the state's languishing economy, passing a tax on New Jersey's millionaires and legalizing and taxing marijuana.

Ben Dworkin, director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., said it would be difficult for Mr. Murphy to implement his agenda given the state's budget constraints.

"A new administration wants to do something new, they need a new signature project to show how they're different," Mr. Dworkin said. "But even before they find the new money to do the new thing, they've got to fill the hole that's been left for them."

In December, Mr. Murphy sent a letter to departing Gov. Chris Christie expressing concern about "the potential for significant shortfalls" from several funding sources this fiscal year, which ends June 30, as well as the impact of the then-pending federal tax bill on New Jersey's budget. Mr. Christie disputed Mr. Murphy's numbers, saying the budget "continues to progress in good shape."

The new governor will also face an onslaught of requests from Democrats and others eager to advance priorities that were blocked or stalled by Mr. Christie. Mr. Murphy will have the advantage of working with a Democratic-controlled legislature, but he hasn't previously held elected office and therefore hasn't experienced the push and pull that comes with policy-making.

Brigid Harrison, a professor of political science and law at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., said building relationships with legislative leaders, particularly New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney, will be crucial. Mr. Sweeney, who had been considering a run for governor before Mr. Murphy locked up the nomination, has led the Senate since 2010 and is considered the second-most powerful elected official in the state.

Mr. Sweeney "has the ability to make [Mr. Murphy's] time in office relatively easy or extremely difficult," Ms. Harrison said.

The Senate president said he expects the legislature will work with Mr. Murphy to quickly pass measures that have widespread support among Democrats, such as equal-pay legislation and paid family and sick-leave expansion. Lawmakers were unable to have these measures signed into law under Mr. Christie, who hasn't had any of his vetoes overridden by the legislature during his two terms in office.

"There's a lot of low-hanging fruit for us," Mr. Sweeney said.

The Democratic senator said he also has his own priorities, including swiftly passing legislation to provide subsidies for the nuclear-power industry. The state's largest operator said in December that, without help from the state, it could shut down two plants, which together employ about 1,600 workers.

A bill providing for the subsidies was introduced in the legislature late last year but failed to pass before the end of the session. Mr. Sweeney said he has already reintroduced the bill and is waiting to hear from the Murphy administration on whether the new governor supports it.

"I shared the legislation with them, and I never got any feedback from them," Mr. Sweeney said. "We gave you the bill for a reason -- give me comment. Give me feedback."

A spokesman for Mr. Murphy declined to comment. Last year, Mr. Murphy said he wants to keep nuclear plants open but wouldn't want any subsidies to interfere with the state's renewable-energy efforts.

As he looks to implement his agenda, Mr. Murphy will also face pressure from groups worried about the impact that additional spending would have on taxes. The average residential property-tax bill in New Jersey topped $8,000 in 2016.

Tom Bracken, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, said he wants to see Mr. Murphy move quickly to make the state more affordable and business-friendly. Moving forward with transportation projects, attacking property taxes or making tax-incentive programs available to all companies -- not just to those that are considering moving into or have threatened to leave the state -- are several things that Mr. Bracken said would help kick-start the economy.

"The key thing is to send a message," Mr. Bracken said. "There are many things he can do on Day 1, but the bigger the message he sends, I think the more encouraged people will be. We want to rally around something."

Write to Kate King at Kate.King@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 15, 2018 07:14 ET (12:14 GMT)