Politico: New Jersey minimum wage stall curbs state’s vision as Democratic trendsetter

GSI’s president, Regina M. Egea, was interviewed by Politico New Jersey’s Katherine Landregan for a piece on the stalemate between Governor Phil Murphy and the legislature over a $15 minimum wage bill:

Democrat Phil Murphy was elected governor of deep blue New Jersey in 2017 promising to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. With Democrats finally enjoying unified control of the state government after eight years of Chris Christie, leaders in the Assembly and Senate said they wanted to do the same.

Yet more than a year later, New Jersey’s minimum wage is at $8.85 an hour, barely changed from when Murphy was elected.

The lack of change is emblematic of intra-Democratic fighting in the Garden State and is a window into how challenging it‘s been for the Murphy administration to fulfill its self-styled role as a Democratic standard-bearer and liberal policy leader in the Trump era.

Negotiations have dragged for a year as Murphy and Democratic legislative leaders have disagreed on the details, and a bill to raise the minimum wage has yet to clear a committee. While it appears a deal could be imminent, as Murphy and legislative leaders prepare to negotiate again on Jan. 10, the question, particularly among Murphy’s liberal base, remains: What’s taking so long?

“Minimum wage was considered some of the lowest of the low-hanging fruit,” said Brandon McKoy, director of government and public affairs at New Jersey Policy Perspective, a left-leaning think tank. “For Democrats who always want to point to Trump and the Republicans to say how bad they are for the country and working people — okay, well what are you doing about it?”

Before Murphy entered office, a major increase in the minimum wage seemed like a layup, a fact that had business organizations troubled and labor groups rejoicing.

New Jersey under Murphy has also fashioned itself as a Democratic leader, one of the states whose governor and attorney general would be willing to take on the Trump administration and challenge federal policies that Democrats find unethical or objectionable.

Raising the minimum wage has been a years-long dream of Democrats both elsewhere and in New Jersey, where lawmakers had tried and failed under Republican Gov. Chris Christie to boost it gradually to $15. With Christie gone and Democrats retaining control of both branches of the Legislature, it was a policy that was finally within reach.

In November 2017, Murphy stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow Democrats state Senate President Steve Sweeney and incoming Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin at a press conference to champion their shared support for the issue. While they acknowledged there would be disagreements over the details, the three waved off any concern that this would prevent them from easily coming to a deal.

“This is as high on the priority list as anything we’ve got," Murphy said at the time.

But behind the scenes, relationships were quickly souring between Murphy and Sweeney, a longtime political player who has a firm grip on power in the Legislature.

It’s no secret that Sweeney had planned to run for governor in 2017. But Murphy laid the groundwork early for his campaign and worked to scoop up so many endorsements that he knocked Sweeney out of the race before he even had the chance to enter it.

Murphy also has had a close relationship with the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union and a fierce enemy of Sweeney. As Murphy ran for governor, the NJEA waged a historic campaign in which it unsuccessfully tried to remove Sweeney from his Senate seat. Murphy’s ties to the union and his failure to denounce the NJEA during the campaign apparently angered Sweeney.

It’s this tension between Sweeney and Murphy that many in Trenton say has delayed major policy changes, including minimum wage. There are also significant ideological differences between the two men. Murphy is far to the left of many Democrats in the Legislature, and Sweeney, while liberal on social issues, is more conservative on fiscal matters.

Some Trenton legislative insiders say the delay was in part because there was much to get done. Democrats had controlled the Legislature for eight years with a Republican governor, and there was a backlog of easier bills that needed to get done first.

There have been some key Democratic wins, like mandating paid sick leave for workers, bolstering equal pay laws and increasing funding for schools. But more significant goals, like boosting the minimum wage and legalizing recreational marijuana, have yet to get to the finish line.

John Wisniewski, a former Assemblyman who ran for governor against Murphy in the Democratic primary, said this type of delay on a central issue like the minimum wage creates the impression that Democrats in the state are unable to properly govern.

“Here we are a year later, and it’s not law,” said Wisniewski, who was a sponsor of the $15 minimum wage bill when he was in office. “If you can’t get one of your signature beliefs done with unified executive, legislative leadership, then what can you get done?”

Regina Egea, former chief of staff to Gov. Chris Christie, says this is yet another example of the Legislature setting the agenda over the governor’s office.

“The Legislature’s defined the playing field; they are defining the pace and putting the front office on defense,” said Egea, who now heads Garden State Initiative, a right-leaning think tank in the state.

Murphy has been banging the drum on the need to raise the minimum wage to $15 since he took office, holding press conferences and flooding his government social media accounts.

New Direction New Jersey, a nonprofit tied to the governor, even recently launched a TV ad featuring Murphy where he calls for a higher minimum wage.

The governor seemed to grow increasingly frustrated by the month, as he had sent over a draft bill to legislative leaders back in May that had carve-outs for certain types of workers, but it was never given serious consideration.

“I’m running out of patience,” Murphy told POLITICO at the time.

It’s Murphy’s public heckling that drew the ire of Sweeney, who said he felt he was being painted as an opponent of a higher minimum wage. He pinned the blame back on the governor for holding press conferences instead of actually negotiating with the Legislature.

"I believe in raising the minimum wage," Sweeney told the Star Ledger in response. "I don't believe in showboating and doing press conferences. If you want to get something done, then sit down with the principals and have a conversation.”

Then, weeks before the end of the year, there was a major breakthrough.

Coughlin presented his chamber’s proposal to the minimum wage to $15, the broad strokes of which are backed by Sweeney. They met with Murphy for a closed-door meeting, in which Sweeney and Coughlin said they made “significant progress” with the governor.

Coughlin’s legislation would boost the wage to $15 for most minimum wage earners by 2024, but would phase in other groups, like farmworkers, seasonal workers and teenagers to $15 over an 11-year period.

The slower phase-in was welcomed by the business community as a necessary cushion to slow the impact on employers in the state. It also prompted fierce criticism from advocacy groups, who say the bill continues to disenfranchise the already disenfranchised by creating a secondary class of minimum wage earners.

Analilia Mejia, executive director of New Jersey Working Families, said that Democrats are watering down their pledge to raise the minimum wage with this proposal. She questioned how Democrats like Sweeney could support measures like pay equity and then turn around and push for a proposal that would leave behind women and people of color.

“It creates a permanent subclass of workers and wages that is antithetical to the labor movement and the Democratic Party,” she said.

It remains to be seen what a final piece of legislation will actually look like, and how far Murphy will budge. The governor has promised a deal “early in the new year.”

But those heading labor groups have been left feeling disheartened. In Mejia’s eyes, many Democrats supported a higher minimum wage when it was convenient, but now are using it as a chess piece in a political game.

“Caught in the middle are the people of this state — over a million workers are held hostage by the pissing match between three white men,” she said. “That’s incredible, but that’s politics.”