TRENTON -The crowds started lining up before 1 p.m.
No, it wasn’t a concert, or even a championship high school basketball game.
This was a Gov. Phil Murphy pep rally, or rather a press conference, to condemn the estimated $36.5 billion budget passed last week by Legislative Democrats.
Just before the conference began shortly after 2 p.m. – more than a half-hour late – about a hundred people were assembled behind the podium from where the governor was about to speak. Probably more people stood behind the seated press and along the wall in the media room of the governor’s temporary office at 225 West State Street.
A few minutes before things got underway, a chant rose up from some in the crowd.
“No gimmicks, no tricks, millionaire’s tax is the fix.”
When Murphy arrived, he gave a few high-fives to his supporters.
All of this, of course, was well choreographed. People don’t just show up in an office building in Trenton in the middle of the day – unless they work in one, or are told they’re needed to make a statement. The latter was the case here.
When the governor made it through the gauntlet of fans, he quickly rattled off the organizations in attendance.
There were environmental groups, Planned Parenthood, a group of moms against gun violence, some clergy, gay rights’ groups, and a number of public unions.
To grasp the substance of the governor’s remarks, you needed to plow into the nitty-gritty of revenue projections and the likelihood they would be realized. In this case, the governor claimed they would not be, noting that the lawmakers’ budget was so far off, it would eat up all its estimated surplus and actually produce a deficit of $104 million.
State budgets must be balanced by law.
All that was another episode in the “he said, she said,” debate over a budget that must be finalized by June 30. Legislative leaders made their case shortly before Murphy did.
The numbers are important, but in this case, they’re not telling the whole story.
Murphy’s public display of traditionally liberal groups seemed obviously designed to make one point. And that is, that he, Murphy, is representing true Democratic party values.
Look who he has on his side?
Those fighting to protect the environment. Those supporting women’s rights. Those backing the rights of average workers. Those opposed to the proliferation of guns. Those backing gays.
How about the other side? The majority in the Legislature? They’re Democrats too, right?
Well, are they?
Murphy again evoked the image of Chris Christie to describe how Legislative Democrats are acting.
“I know I’ve taken some heat for comparing the Legislature’s budget to a Christie budget, but even Governor Christie never signed a budget with a surplus under $300 million, and most were higher,” he said.
Last week, the governor compared the Legislature controlled by his own party to Christie three times and even mentioned Donald Trump. Can a Richard Nixon mention be far behind?
Nonetheless, Murphy still expressed optimism a budget deal will be put together by month’s end, sparing the state a government shutdown. And as his chanting backers indicated, Murphy still wants to raise income taxes on millionaires. He also is holding firm on upping the sales tax back to seven cents on a dollar.
Amid it all, Murphy deflected a question about whether he would actually veto the Legislature’s budget, relying only on the rather lame comment that all options are being considered.
If Murphy brought a cheering section to a press conference on revenue projections, what would he do if he vetoes the budget.
Be on the lookout for a marching band.