“His ideas and ideals are ringing examples of courageous political leadership in gun control, education, economic reform, and environmental protections that provided a model for standing up to the economic and social challenges of our times,” – State Sen. Patrick Diegnan (D-Middlesex) in 2017 on Gov. Florio
Like Governor Brendan Byrne (1974 To 1982), Governor Jim Florio (1990-1994) is another governor whose tenure Phil Murphy should study. Also like Byrne and Murphy, Florio won the governorship in 1989 with a landslide victory (62-38). His key campaign promise was “You can write this statement down: “Florio feels there is no need for new taxes.” His tenure was rich in progressive legislation which remains relevant to today’s concerns.
Florio first made his mark as a representative serving in Congress for 15 years (1975-1990). There Florio authored the “Superfund” law, to clean up the most polluted sites in the country. He wrote and steered passage of an amendment creating the Pinelands National Reserve. Enacted before the New Jersey legislature passed Governor Brendan Byrne’s Pinelands proposal, the federal amendment helped protect approximately 1.1 million NJ (now endangered) acres.
Florio twice sought the office of governor before his election in 1989. In 1977 he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Governor Byrne in the Democratic primary. Four years later, he was the victor in the primary contest but lost the 1981 general election by 1,797 votes to Republican Tom Kean.
In Florio’s gubernatorial campaign the state was facing a mounting revenue shortfall. Florio said he would not call for tax increases until the state could better account for the $12 billion in revenue it then collected. His primary Democratic rival Alan Karcher had said that a tax increase was unavoidable and that he would levy additional taxes on residents who earn more than $100,000 a year, as well as on corporations. ”Make the wealthy and the rich pay their fair share,” Mr. Karcher said.
As governor, Florio successfully passed legislation, against substantial opposition, to ban the sale of semi-automatic assault weapons which remained in effect until 1992 when Republican legislators succeed in repealing the measure. Florio was the last governor to fully fund the State Pension Plan. He had the nation’s highest credit rating and, among Northeast states, the strongest financial condition. Today, after eight credit downgrades during Christie’s tenure, it’s a different story. He also initiated auto insurance reform, stringent clean water laws, and the Quality Education Act.
He was able to increase aid to public schools (required by the NJ Supreme Court) and expand property tax relief programs following his change of mind and decision to enact a $2.8 billion tax increase, with the top income tax rate increased from 3.5% to 7%, and sales tax increased from 6% to 7%. The criticism of these actions contributed to the Republican takeover of both houses of the legislature – with veto-proof majorities. In 1993 Governor Florio was defeated in a close general election by Republican Christine Todd Whitman, who won by a margin of 49% to 48%. She had promised to reduce taxes, and she followed through with it.
In 2015 Richard Muti wrote, If Florio has regrets about his governorship, it most certainly would not be on any policy issue; but he and staffers admit to a lousy public relations effort. “The politics were not great,” Florio acknowledged. His first Chief of Staff, Steven Perskie, would put it more bluntly: “We did some wonderful and right things. We didn’t do a very good job of selling them politically.”
Murphy would do well to heed former Governor Florio. He continues to this day speaking out, particularly on economic, environmental and education matters. Just a month ago he criticized the Trump Tax Scam saying, “In 1994, a similar regressive tax cut proposal was enacted in our state [by Christie Whitman.] The billions of dollars in lost revenue were not offset by program reductions or alternative revenues. The cuts and the resultant lost revenue were financed by a policy of failing to properly fund the New Jersey Pension Fund. Let’s not duplicate New Jersey’s folly.”
Senator President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in 2017 called Florio “One of New Jersey’s most respected and distinguished statesmen. He demonstrated the courage of his convictions by putting the needs of the people he served ahead of personal political ambitions.”
You may want to read a short article: Governor James J. Florio A Fighter for Environmental Issues. You can also read Blue Jersey’s post Murphy could do worse than listen to former Governor Byrne.