An Earful for Phil: Past Governors Sound Off

Ex-governors share ideas on Murphy's top priorities.

The soon-to-be 56th governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy has a lot of challenges ahead, according to his predecessors.
The soon-to-be 56th governor of New Jersey Phil Murphy has a lot of challenges ahead, according to his predecessors.
Photo by Fred Conrad

Phil Murphy is about to become the 56th governor of New Jersey. The challenges he faces as our chief executive are daunting. New Jersey’s governor is often referred to as the most powerful governor in the country (thanks to our 1947 Constitution)—but that constitutional power won’t fix what ails us. What exactly should be our next governor’s top priorities? What will be his biggest challenges? I turned to five former Garden State governors to find out. Here’s what they had to say:

• James J. Florio (governor, 1990-1994): The governor-elect will face problems almost beyond comprehension. Unfunded pension benefits, State Health Benefits Plan shortfalls, inadequate NJ Transit capital, school-funding requirements and necessary infrastructure investments add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Inadequate existing services preclude dramatic cost reductions. Spending is not the problem; revenues are. The prevailing, shortsighted philosophy in Washington compounds New Jersey’s problem. The prime task of the new governor will be to speak to citizens as adults! Tap into their common sense.

• Christine Todd Whitman (governor, 1994-2001): Having run on a pledge to get New Jersey’s fiscal house in order, governor-elect Murphy’s first priority should be to formulate a new budget while at the same time balancing and prioritizing the new spending programs for which he has called. Getting behind the real budget numbers when you are finally in office is not always as straight-forward as one would like. Addressing New Jersey’s financial challenges will take tough choices, which I hope he will have the courage to make. His second priority should be preparing for the unexpected—a good first step is to get to know the roles and responsibilities of his emergency-response personnel.

• Donald DiFrancesco (governor, 2001-2002): It was impressive that Governor-elect Murphy put forth a detailed vision for New Jersey during the election. But now my hope is that he will take his time and focus primarily on the budget process. The key to his success will be putting an experienced and talented team together—one that will work closely with the legislative leaders…. Developing a solid working relationship with the Senate president and Assembly speaker is imperative.

• James McGreevey (governor, 2002-2004): Two major concerns are the heroin/fentanyl crisis and the need for enhanced reentry services. Over 2,000 persons from New Jersey died from opioid addiction in 2016, while there are approximately 130,000 New Jerseyans addicted to heroin. New Jersey must provide for a consistent addiction-treatment model. From detoxification through outpatient care, we must employ a Continuum of Care, which employs best practices—including Medication Assisted Treatment.

Further, we must be mindful of the difficulties for reentering persons to navigate complex state bureaucracies. Some 10,835 New Jerseyans are released annually from incarceration. Whether general assistance, job training or motor vehicle identification, we must be mindful of the difficulties for reentering persons to navigate complex state bureaucracies.

• Chris Christie (governor, 2010-2018): We are still facing the enormous problem fiscally of pension and health-benefit costs. We’ve done some significant reforms and saved $120 billion over the next 30 years, and I’m very proud of those reforms. I didn’t go as far as I wanted to, but I went as far, and probably farther, than Democrats ever thought they would in terms of fighting the public-sector unions. It is the biggest challenge, and our new governor will see that.

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