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Best NJ 2020 Budget Strategy: Don’t Veto Entire Budget, Use the Line Item Veto

Former EPA Regional Administrator Alan J. Steinberg believes that if Gov. Phil Murphy vetoes the entire proposed NJ 2020 budget and the state government is shut down, he would be committing political suicide. Steinberg says Murphy should use his line item veto instead.

 

In my InsiderNJ column of Monday, June 17 , “Murphy’s Key to Survival – Nobody’s Watching ‘The Trenton Show’, I expressed my belief that in terms of public opinion, Democratic Governor Phil Murphy is actually surviving well in his current impasse with the Democratic-controlled legislature.  I attribute his political survival to two factors: 1) the lack of attention paid by the New Jersey electorate to current New Jersey political issues; and 2) the highly effective Brad Lawrence-produced commercials in support of the governor’s millionaire’s tax proposal. 

I also warned the Murphy administration that a state government shutdown would likely result in a dramatic fall in the governor’s job approval ratings, severely endangering his reelection prospects.  Such a shutdown could result either from 1) the legislature’s failure to pass a budget by the June 30 constitutional deadline, or 2) a gubernatorial veto of an entire legislatively passed budget. 

The following is the link to the Monmouth University poll taken and published after the 2006 government shutdown resulting from the budget impasse between  the then Governor Jon Corzine and the legislature controlled by his fellow Democrats (https://www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/monmouthpoll_nj_071606/).  The poll graphically demonstrated the intensification of anti-Corzine sentiment in the electorate resulting from the shutdown.  It was the beginning of the end for the Corzine administration. 

A Murphy veto of the entire legislatively passed budget with its resulting state government shutdown would be an act of political suicide.  Murphy has strongly implied that he WILL veto the entire budget if it does not include his requested millionaire’s tax.   

There is available to Murphy, however, a highly viable budget strategy that would keep the budget in balance, avoid a state government shutdown, and quite possibly enable him to obtain passage of the millionaire’s tax as well. In introducing this strategy in this column, I would like to reference one of my all- time favorite sportswriters, the late Jimmy Cannon. 

Cannon, who passed away in 1973, was one of the two greatest sports print journalists in my lifetime, the other being Roger Kahn, author of the American classic about the Jackie Robinson-era Brooklyn Dodgers, The Boys of Summer.  Jimmy was a strong advocate of both Joe Louis and Jackie Roosevelt Robinson. He often introduced his New York Post columns with the words, “Nobody asked me, but…”   

These words apply perfectly to any advice I would offer the Murphy administration.  I have been a severe critic of both Phil Murphy’s performance as governor and the actions and policies of his administration as well.  And I oppose the millionaire’s tax on economic policy grounds.  So obviously, I would be one of the last people whose advice and counsel Phil Murphy or his administration would seek. 

Accordingly, it is altogether appropriate that I preface my political strategy advice on the budget to Phil Murphy with the Jimmy Cannon mantra, “Nobody asked me, but…..” 

Phil Murphy has the power to issue a line item veto of any item he wishes to delete from the legislatively passed budget.  This is a perfect policy and political tool for him to utilize with respect to the Fiscal Year 2020 budget the legislature will pass next week.  He should sign this budget into law after amending it with his line item veto.  Under no circumstances should he veto the entire budget. 

Murphy should only certify revenues recognized by his Treasury Department.  He should then go through the budget and line item veto 1) all “Christmas tree items” of special interest to individual Senators and Assembly members; and 2) items he may find laudable but must be reduced to balance the budget. 

Doubtless, Democratic Senators and Assembly leadership and members will want Murphy to sign a supplemental appropriation bill that would reappropriate all items he vetoed.  At this point, Murphy holds all the cards.  He can respond by agreeing to sign such a supplemental appropriation bill if the Democratic Senators and Assembly members will enact his proposed millionaire’s tax. 

This isn’t rocket science but it does constitute sound political strategy.  The question is whether Governor Murphy and his administration will have the sound political and policy judgment to adopt this strategy and the political skills necessary to adeptly implement it. 

Stay tuned. 

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush and as Executive Director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission under former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. 

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