New Jersey’s Budget Mess Is Getting Even Worse

Democrat Gov. Phil Murphy's approval is starting to slip...

Governor Phil Murphy, stung by his own party’s cutthroat politics, led New Jersey to the brink of a shutdown last year when fellow Democrats blocked his tax increases. This time, budget negotiations are fraught with even deeper fiscal and political peril.

Income-tax collections, the state’s biggest revenue source, were down 6 percent this fiscal year through January, and S&P Global Ratings says even an April windfall may not close the gap. At risk is Murphy’s promised $3.2 billion payment, a record, to a pension system that’s among the worst-funded among U.S. states. He also has yet to resolve funding issues for New Jersey Transit.

At the same time, 80 of 120 state lawmakers face November elections. Democrats likely will be reluctant to dip into voters’ wallets with Murphy’s disapproval rating on the rise, residents’ sourness on the state at an all-time high, and their perennial cost-of-living gripes magnified by a new cap on state and local tax deductions. The combination could undercut the party’s gains from the 2018 national election, which handed control of the House of Representatives to Democrats and unseated all but one New Jersey Republican.

“They support tax increases at great risk to their political careers,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford who led the blockade of a millionaire’s tax and some other Murphy initiatives last year. “This state could easily go back to the Republican Party if we don’t pay attention and focus on fiscal health."

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Murphy’s wider base of support, though, is at risk. With his approval at 43 percent, steady from a year earlier, disapproval jumped 12 percentage points to 40 percent, according to a Monmouth University poll of 604 adults from Feb. 8-10 that had an error margin of 4 points.

Just half of residents said New Jersey is a good place to live, a record low in almost 40 years of Monmouth polling on the issue. Property taxes are seen as the most urgent issue in a state where the average such bill hit a record $8,876 in 2018.