Murphy at war with South Jersey? Sweeney feud heats up
TRENTON — With vetoes of bills dealing with an income-tax pact with Pennsylvania, economic development near the Atlantic City and Cape May airports and Renaissance schools in Camden, Gov. Phil Murphy further raised the ire of South Jersey Democrats, particularly Senate President Steve Sweeney, with whom he has an oft-frayed relationship.
The vetoes were among a stack Murphy issued last Monday, when the Senate and Assembly returned to the Statehouse in order to deal with another of Murphy’s veto that came under criticism from some lawmakers: A ballot question asking voters to approve $500 million in school construction, which lawmakers had wanted to be $1 billion.
But it was the South Jersey related vetoes that generated the fiercest criticism, with Murphy’s fellow Democrats calling it a gut punch and flat-out unfair to a region that deserves better.
Montclair State University political scientist Brigid Harrison said it’s not that Murphy is neglecting South Jersey – it’s intentional.
“Unfortunately, it appears that Gov. Murphy is willing to put policies that would benefit South Jersey residents in the cross hairs in order to score political points against his political rival,” said Harrison.
Beyond the vetoes was NJ Transit’s long-term closure of the Atlantic City Line in order to facilitate the system-wide installation of positive train control before a year-end deadline, said Harrison.
“There’s a very real sentiment in the southern part of the state and in kind of politically cognizant circles in other parts of the state, that the governor is willing to be punitive when it comes to his rivalry with the Senate president, Steve Sweeney,” she said. “And if that means that average New Jerseyans are hurt, well, that’s kind of the cost of doing business for the governor.”
Policy ... or punishment?
Rider University political scientist Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Policy, said the vetoes are about policy, not punishment – and determining the dynamics of Trenton.
“I definitely think he is signaling that he wants to have a role, that he wants to figure out what this relationship is going to be going forward, that he’s not just going to roll over,” Rasmussen said. “He wants to be an equal partner.”
Rasmussen is from South Jersey so he understands the tradition of feeling ignored.
“I can tell you that no one believes that’s the case right now in the state of New Jersey. South Jersey has asserted itself in ways that it never has before and has power that it has never had before,” Rasmussen said.
With the 22 bills he vetoed last week, Murphy has now vetoed 36 bills in seven and a half months. Harrison said the vetoes signify weakness and are a symbol of dysfunction.
“It is incredibly rare for governors and presidents who have control of the Legislature to veto measures. It really is a sign that the house is not in order,” said Harrison, who said executives typically leans on legislative leaders to hold a bill they don’t support to avoid hard feelings.
Murphy has vetoed more bills in his first seven and a half months in office than the last governor whose party ran the Legislature — Jon Corzine — did in his entire four-year term. Corzine vetoed 30.
Over the four years before that, when Democrats Jim McGreevey and Dick Codey served as governor in a term interrupted by McGreevey’s resignation, they vetoed a combined 29 bills.
That term was unusual in that the Senate was equally divided among Democrats and Republicans for the first two years, and then Codey was both governor and Senate president for the last 14 months – almost entirely eliminating a need for vetoes, since Codey could just block bills in the Senate from reaching his desk as governor.
New Jersey has since created the post of lieutenant governor to fill gubernatorial vacancies.
Rasmussen said that while much is made about how New Jersey’s constitution creates perhaps the nation’s most powerful governorship, the structure also allows for a powerful Senate president and, when it’s inclined to do so, a powerful Legislature.
“So you’ve got everybody in Trenton right now is trying to assert their power,” Rasmussen said. “I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad thing. I think that what we have to see, or what remains to be seen, is how that’s all going to play out.”
How often is Murphy in South Jersey?
Since his inauguration, Murphy’s public schedules took him to South Jersey on 18 days of his first 227 days as governor, for 25 of his first 166 public events.
That depends, of course, on what you consider as being in South Jersey. Subtract four days and five events if you don’t count Brick, Point Pleasant Beach, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park.
Of the other 20 events, 10 were in Atlantic City – which were certainly in South Jersey, though not always about South Jersey, since eight were in the casinos, mostly to address conventions.
That leaves 10 other public events in South Jersey, four of which took place Friday, on a whirlwind tour that brought him to a Labor Day ceremony in Collingswood, business ribbon cutting event in Buena, school opening in Vineland and a winery in Atco.
“What a treat to be here,” Murphy said in Vineland. “I’m spending a rocking day in South Jersey.”
Murphy was also in Cherry Hilll and Mount Laurel in February; Gloucester City in March; Willingboro in April; and Voorhees and Wrightstown in May.
For comparison purposes, Gov. Chris Christie spent 13 days in South Jersey through the end of August of his first year as governor, doing 16 public events. Only one was in Atlantic City.