Home>Highlight>Stomping Grounds: Murphy’s budget, Election Transparency Act, legislative pay raises, and taxpayer-funded legal ads for newspapers

Stomping Grounds: Murphy’s budget, Election Transparency Act, legislative pay raises, and taxpayer-funded legal ads for newspapers

By David Wildstein, March 03 2023 11:45 am

New Jerseyans aren’t always civil, but it’s still possible for a liberal Democrat and a conservative Republican to have a rational and pleasant conversation about politics in the state.  Dan Bryan is a former senior advisor to Gov. Phil Murphy and is now the owner of his own public affairs firm, and Alex Wilkes is an attorney and former executive director of America Rising PAC who advises Republican candidates in New Jersey and across the nation.  Dan and Alex are both experienced strategists who are currently in the room where high-level decisions are made.  They will get together weekly with New Jersey Globe editor David Wildstein to discuss politics and issues.

New Jersey Globe: Governor Murphy proposed a $53 billion budget this week that he says will keep New Jersey on a path to prosperity and financial stability. Republicans think there’s too much spending and too many gimmicks.  Which is it?

Alex Wilkes: Here’s the reality of Governor Murphy’s budget: it, once again, has the state spending beyond our means, and it is peppered with one-time gimmicks and giveaways in a cheap attempt to distract voters.

Take the ANCHOR program, for example. Murphy is essentially allowing us to apply for our own tax dollars that he’s already taken. He simply has no plan to implement structural changes that would offer New Jerseyans the kind of lasting tax relief that would attract families and businesses to our state.

Spending is up over 50% under Governor Murphy’s watch, and what taxpayers will soon find out the hard way was that Biden’s “Blue State Bailout” with COVID dollars was a one-time event. It’s certainly not enough to justify the kind of programs that Murphy and the Democrats have created and expanded during this time — particularly, if the Governor is looking to fritter away funds on goodies like SUVs for his office and a multimillion-dollar Hall of Fame project at the American Dream.

Dan Bryan: There’s no question that Governor Murphy is investing more in core priorities than Governor Christie did. But let’s take a look at where that money is going.

In the FY2024 budget vs. the FY 2018 budget (Governor Christie’s final), we’re investing an extra $4.6 billion toward our pension (finally paying the fully pension payment, for the third year in a row), $2.6 billion toward education (one years from fully funding the state education funding formula, which Governor Christie drastically underfunded every year), and an extra $9.6 billion in surplus funding. We’re investing more in NJ TRANSIT, in higher education, and $2 billion in the ANCHOR property tax relief program.

So what Governor Murphy is really doing is what New Jersey Republicans always claim they want: paring fiscal responsibility with fiscal prudence. We’re paying our bills, fully investing in priorities like education, transportation, and our pension obligations, and maintaining a healthy surplus, which we’ll need if we hit a recession. And credit rating agencies are finally taking New Jersey seriously again.

As always, the NJ GOP talks the talk on fiscal responsibility, and Governor Murphy walks the walk.

New Jersey Globe: The controversial Elections Transparency Act that doubled campaign contribution limits, ended local pay-to-pay laws, required the disclosure of contributions to dark money groups, and restructured the state’s campaign finance watchdog agency, stalled in the legislature on Monday. What happened?  And what happens now?

Dan: Clearly, Legislative leadership wanted to take more time to get the bill right. These are complex issues, and any changes will arouse passions on both sides. The Senate President was right to decide to give the process more time, and by working with advocates and fellow elected officials, he can come back with stronger legislation that can receive broader support.

Alex: I was happy to see the media in this state actually come together quickly to expose and shame the Democrats for this brazen power grab.

There’s no sugar-coating it: Democrats were looking to end the independence of the state’s campaign watchdog as we know it by allowing the Governor to fire the Executive Director of ELEC at will. What could possibly justify upending decades of campaign finance law? In the minds of the Murphy folks, apparently, a petty spat between this Governor’s staff and ELEC’s current Executive Director. How pathetic.

Republicans already have their concerns about ELEC, from suspicions that enforcement of claims against Democrats is relatively light compared to those against Republicans to the fact that Murphy has failed to appoint another Republican commissioner during his tenure. Giving ultimate veto power to Governor Murphy – or the ruling party going forward – would have shredded ELEC’s credibility.

Before they were caught red-handed, Democrats attempted to sneak this into a larger bill just a few nights before the vote. Just one more reminder that the next time a Democrat – particularly in this state – tries to lecture you about the evils of money in politics, they are completely full of it.

New Jersey Globe: Dick Codey raised a delicate topic in a meeting with some of his colleagues this week: a pay raise for legislators for the first time in more than 20 years.  Could spending a little more on salaries for the executive and legislative branches help attract and retain the best and brightest to government service?

Alex: I don’t think discussions about cost-of-living increases or pay raises for legislators and their staff are unreasonable as a general matter. Do I think this current bunch led by Democrats who have made it unaffordable for everyone else to live here deserve it? Probably not.

Dan: Senator Codey has a point – New Jersey Legislators deserve a raise. Not just to keep up with the cost of living, but so more New Jerseyans see running for public office as a viable career path.

As Alex and I can both attest, raising a family is not cheap. And $49,000 for a job that is essentially full-time is not nearly enough in this state. If we want to continue to attract and retain top talent to serve in our state legislature, we need to pay more.

New Jersey Globe: The Star-Ledger and NJ Advance Media has shuttered their Washington bureau and laid off a dedicated journalist, Jonathan Salant, the only reporter covering the New Jersey congressional delegation full-time.  Billionaires own the Star-Ledger, but their cutbacks leave parts of New Jersey with local news deserts.  At what point should Governor Murphy and the legislature consider eliminating subsidies to big newspaper corporations by repealing the state law that requires local governments to spend millions running legal notices in newspapers that are no longer being printed and delivered?

Dan: They should consider it now. The state of the New Jersey media ecosphere is abysmal, and much of that blame lays on the shoulders of Advance, a private company owned by billionaires, and Gannett, a publicly traded company known for quickly destroying the assets it acquires. These two organizations are also the two that benefit the most from paid local and county legal notices, which absolutely no one reads and which could easily be posted online for free. These notices cost taxpayers millions of dollars per year.

I am all for subsidizing journalism in New Jersey, but it should be done in a way that’s transparent, accessible, and equitable. Most of the indispensable news organizations in New Jersey are local digital outlets, like my local, the Village Green. They don’t benefit from Maplewood’s paid legal notices, but the Star Ledger, which hasn’t covered a local Board of Ed meeting or Town Council meeting in years, does.

So let’s rethink the way we support news organizations in New Jersey. Let’s end subsidies to the billionaires and big corporations that are gutting our news outlets, and support the ones that still care about delivering news to New Jerseyans.

Alex: It’s safe to say that you can almost always count on me for support in ending useless government subsidies. In this case, government intervention is clearly creating an imbalance in the marketplace in terms of how news is gathered and distributed, so let’s cut it and allow consumers to pick the winners and losers – not Trenton.

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