NJ Spotlight

Gov. Phil Murphy is getting a passing grade or better for his first year in office from some organizations and special-interest groups, but NJ Spotlight’s review of his major promises found mixed results.

Murphy, who delivers his first State of the State address to the Legislature today on the eve of the one-year anniversary of his taking office, has taken steps toward accomplishing nearly all 22 concrete promises made in his inaugural speech. He has also taken some action on close to 40 percent of another 75 specific pledges made during his gubernatorial campaign.

But he has also learned that being arguably the most powerful governor in the nation does not give him the ability to fully enact his agenda, even when his party controls both houses of the Legislature. To date, he has been unable to fulfill several of his major inaugural promises such as a $15 minimum wage, legalized recreational marijuana, and a millionaires tax — not for want of trying. The stumbling block: pushback from, most notably, Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex).

The price of inexperience

Matthew Hale, a professor of political science and public affairs at Seton Hall University, described the governor as “following and not leading” and attributed many of his problems to his lack of political experience and his desire to be liked.

“He is waiting for the legislature to move on marijuana legalization and minimum wage instead of walking down the street and not leaving until he gets deals done,” Hale said. While both Murphy and legislative leaders profess to have the same priorities, they differ on specific solutions.

Cliff Zukin, an emeritus professor of political science and public policy at Rutgers University and senior adviser to Rutgers’ Eagleton Poll, put a little more of the blame on Sweeney than Murphy. If grading Murphy, Zukin said he would give him a C, incomplete, or low pass.

“But I’m not sure that is all his fault. I really wonder how much he would have gotten done if he had not had an obstructionist senate president kicking sand in his face,” Zukin said.

He noted that many have blamed an inexperienced Murphy and his staff as major problems to getting his agenda completed.

‘Bullies and bosses’

“But from where I sit it has been the Senate president who has been the biggest obstacle in Murphy getting his agenda through. After all, it includes some items the Dem Legislature passed when (Chris) Christie was governor,” Zukin continued. “Still … if you look at how Trump or Christie used the power of the executive office, Murphy has not made anybody really pay a price for standing in his way. And it may be that bullies and bosses really only respect power, thinking accommodation is a sign of weakness. It's not pretty or healthy, but it is the Jersey way.”

Some special-interest groups, such as the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters Education Fund, gave higher grades to reflect how Murphy has taken action on issues they care about.

“The governor’s first year has been a whirlwind of pro-environmental actions and commitments to conservation, including creating 100,000 jobs in energy efficiency, reversing rollbacks such as the Highlands Septic Density rule, standing up to polluters and developers, and making sweeping changes at the DEP that puts science-based decision making a top priority,” said Ed Potosnak, the fund’s executive director, who gave the Murphy administration a B+.

Still, he continued, that’s lower than the A- the group gave him following his first 100 days in office “because of a lack of appointments to critical regional planning commissions such as the Highlands Council and the Pinelands Commission.”

D for disappointment

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, also criticized Murphy for his lack of appointments to important boards, but was harsher. He gave Murphy a D, though saying it was for “disappointment” over actions not taken.

“After eight years of Christie and his attacks on the environment, we were hoping for the Murphy administration to move quickly, but that has not happened,” Tittel said. “There has been some small progress but it is not enough. Gov. Murphy has been in office for 12 months now, but most of Christie’s policies, rules, and standards are still in place. There has not been one original proposed rule, regulation, or standard for the NJDEP yet from the Murphy administration.”

Murphy spokesman Dan Bryan said the governor is “proud of the strong environmental progress his administration has made over the past twelve months” and touted a number of his accomplishments that “establish New Jersey’s leadership in the clean energy economy. These include beginning the process to update the state’s Energy Master Plan for the state to achieve 100 percent clean energy by 2050, opposing federal efforts to allow seismic testing and offshore drilling off the coast, and working to stop the construction of the PennEast Pipeline.”

“Gov. Murphy is committed to protecting the state’s resources and preserving the health and safety of all New Jersey residents,” Bryan said.

Pushing to fulfill promises

A host of advocates for social reforms gathered outside the State House on Monday to push Murphy and lawmakers to complete a number of pledges yet unfulfilled. In addition to the $15 minimum wage and the legalization of marijuana, they also called for giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants and increasing housing opportunities.

“New Jersey has not just a mandate, but a responsibility to demonstrate what justice looks like in action, starting with restoration of the right to vote for people with convictions and a path to marijuana legalization that puts racial justice at the forefront,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha.

In just his first year, Bryan said Murphy “has done a whole lot of what he promised.” Murphy’s office last month released a two-page list of his first-year accomplishments.

Still, with some major pledges not yet fulfilled, Hale gives Murphy a C or C- at the end of his first year. And that, he says, is being generous.

“He has a long way to go but has shown the potential to get there,” Hale said. “A lower grade is probably what he deserves but it's always good to be encouraging to new students.”

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