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TRENTON – Phil Murphy sees this as a defining moment. He’s the guy standing between the “common folk” and the “crony capitalists” on one hand and and the very rich on the other.
“I’m incredibly at peace with where I am,” the governor said at a Tuesday afternoon press event.
Where Murphy is, politically speaking, is at the crossroads of a battle on two fronts.
One enemy, oddly enough, are Democratic leaders in the Legislature who are refusing to endorse the governor's plan to raise income taxes on those earning more than a million dollars a year, or as he calls it, “tax fairness.”
The other adversary are defenders of a state incentive-grant program that a governor’s task force just said was tainted by political favoritism. The governor offered a more down-to-earth synopsis.
“This is a rigged system,” he said, created by insiders to serve other insiders.
A grant program and a budget are not the same. But with events of the day coincidentally – perhaps – meshing them together, Murphy seems to be sensing a dual opportunity.
On one hand, he can keep fighting for a millionaire’s tax, which, in truth, would be a fairly modest increase. Murphy’s plan would increase the top rate from the current 8.97 percent on income of more than a million dollars annually to 10.75 percent.
That was the main point of Tuesday’s spectacle. And a spectacle it was, as the governor appeared with about two dozen union leaders surrounding him. They represented public and private unions in the fields of transportation, education, health care and clerical work. About 10 people spoke and each backed higher taxes on the rich and thanked Murphy for his commitment to that goal. It gets a bit tiring when groups of people essentially say the same thing, but the point was certainly made.
Democratic leaders are planning to pass a 2019-2020 budget minus the millionaire’s tax on Thursday. The governor didn’t say he would veto it, but he did offer the rather lame, “All options are on the table.”
He also talked about ratcheting up the pressure on wavering Democrats. In fact, Murphy said it would “intensify.” Precisely what that means remains to be seen.
The governor’s talking points are actually pretty good. Polls show support for a millionaire’s tax and some of the now-reluctant Legislative Democrats backed it more than once when Chris Christie was governor. Christie vetoed it every time it passed. Murphy also claims that the number of “millionaires” in the state is growing.
The budget has a deadline – June 30, But the controversy over the grant program is more open-ended.
While he was reluctant to say he would veto the soon-to-be-passed budget, Murphy had no qualms saying he would veto the current Economic Development Authority program if the Legislature moves to continue it.
There’s great political ammunition here for the governor. He can stand opposed to slimy deals and to boot, he can criticize two people he loves to criticize – South Jersey Democratic political kingpin George Norcross and Christie, whose administration championed the grant program now under scrutiny.
Camden businesses connected to Norcross received many of the grants in question.
More than once, the governor stressed his commitment and support of the middle class and by extension, the average guy.
Is this a winning formula?
It may very well be if average folk were more energized. One can’t ignore a poll this week that concluded far too many New Jerseyans don’t know the governor is someone named Phil Murphy.
That opens up another battlefront.
Besides fighting Democrats in the Legislature and Norcross, Murphy has to make sure people know who he is. Battling perceived corruption and the very wealthy may help.