Even Good Governance is Bad: Sweeney-Murphy Tussle Again

According to a 2001 Pew study, New Jersey has the country’s most powerful governor when measured by “tenure, appointment power, budget authority, veto power, party control, and the number of other statewide elected officials.” But that has little to do with Sweeney’s attempt to wrest constitutional control to certify budget projections from Murphy’s administration. Samantha Marcus captures the struggle:

Under the constitution, the governor has final say projecting in how much money the state will collect in any given fiscal year, and in turn, estimating how much money it has to spend.

That led to a fight between Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders this year who disagreed how much new revenue proposed tax increases might generate. Legislative leaders accused Murphy of low-balling to justify his call for higher taxes.

There’s a lot going on here. The struggle is the latest battleground between Sweeney and Murphy that has more to do with power, ambition, and different visions for New Jersey than about the particular policies over which they are locking horns.

And that’s a shame. A key campaign point for gubernatorial hopeful and Democratic primary candidate John Wisniewski was the power of the New Jersey governor and the ultimate need to limit it. Gov. Chris Christie regularly abused this power. Marcus picks up on the theme:

Former Gov. Chris Christie‘s bullish revenue forecasts would force him by year’s end to slash pension payments, refinance tobacco bonds and take other measures to plug the gaps they created.

Good government groups and rating agencies, too, have bemoaned the system of dueling estimates as ripe for political infighting, while noting that consensus estimates have better accuracy.

But while limiting the gubernatorial power to make budget projections may be good policy, here it’s being used as a cudgel to limit Murphy’s influence and limit progressive spending. In other words, Sweeney is using “good governance” legislation in an attempt to wrest power from Murphy and adopt more conservative policies. Sweeney’s only avenue to make it work is to reignite the South Jersey Democrat- Republican coalition that Sweeney wielded to great effect during the Christie administration. Limiting Murphy’s administrative power would mean gained leverage in the attempt to shift Murphy’s progressivism toward a more centrist approach.

In New Jersey, even good governance reform is a cover for wider political ambition and intra-party power. In this case, it’s also a missed opportunity. Without this ongoing conflict, Murphy and Sweeney could likely have worked together to both complete a progressive budget that helps the people of New Jersey, and also to limit gubernatorial party in ways that ensure budget gimmicks don’t endanger those reforms in future administrations. Instead, good governance is being used as a cudgel to limit Murphy’s power, empowering Republicans and fiscal conservative philosophies on spending. And remember, this is coming from fellow Democrats.

Are we so sure that the New Jersey Democratic Party is leading a progressive revolution? 

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