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You are here: Home News "Beyond Bergen" - News From Across New Jersey Facing scandal and fiscal crisis, Murphy's challenges deepen | Moran

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Facing scandal and fiscal crisis, Murphy's challenges deepen | Moran

The governor's claim that he knew nothing of Katie Brennan's rape accusation faces deeper scrutiny next month. Then comes the budget, with legislators saying he's given them no hint how he might move to solve the crisis.

Gov. Phil Murphy left on Friday for a 12-day safari in Tanzania with his family, and one of my Christmas wishes is that he has a grand time. He's a decent man, and he deserves a break.

Plus, he's going to get crushed when he returns to Jersey. This could be his last chance to chill for quite a while.

The big fight will center on taxes, and it will flare up in February when the governor is due to present his budget address. The governor is almost certain to lose that fight, and I'll get to that.

But his first problem is Katie Brennan, the woman who says she was raped by a senior Murphy aide, Al Alvarez, during the campaign. She told Murphy's senior people, and they ignored her, month after month, she testified during a special legislative investigation. Meanwhile, they rewarded her alleged rapist with a $140,000 job. She had to walk past the man in hallways, and still her complaints were ignored.

That can't be mansplained away. It's frat-boy behavior, and it is going to hit Murphy right in his sweet spot -- his popularity among women and hard-core liberals.

This scandal will go nuclear if Murphy's claim that he knew nothing until reading press reports is proven untrue. "That would be a really big thing," says Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Bergen, the co-chair of an investigative committee digging at this. "If it's shown that he knew, that would undermine whatever his plans are for the future."

Here's my prediction: Murphy's story is not going to hold up. The governor is either lying about his knowledge of Brennan's complaint, or he chose to look away.

At Tuesday's investigative hearing, Chief of Staff Pete Cammarano told legislators the governor was unaware of Brennan's complaint "as far as I know" -- a phrase that tells us even he's not so sure. He said he didn't tell the governor because two attorneys, both appointed by Murphy, advised him that the state's confidentiality rules forbid it.

Think about that one: How could the rules allow Cammarano to know, but not the governor?

I asked the four women legislators who are leading this investigation if that made any sense to them, and they all shook their heads in a bipartisan "no."

The state's confidentiality rules explicitly allow information to be shared with those who have "a legitimate need to know." Are we supposed to believe that Cammarano had a need to know, but the governor did not?

The line of the day on Tuesday came from Charlie McKenna, who served as chief counsel to former Gov. Chris Christie before switching to run the agency in charge of school construction. He was called because he was the direct supervisor to Alvarez during the first seven months of the Murphy administration, when he served as a holdover

Legislators asked how Christie would have reacted if McKenna withheld this kind of information when he was chief counsel.

"I would still be feeling the pain today," McKenna answered.

Legislators intend to dig at this again, and that can't be good for Murphy. Information will dribble out slowly, and painfully. The warm evening breezes of Tanzania will seem like a distant dream from another lifetime.

In February, bruised from all this, Murphy has to present a budget. He says he may want to raise taxes again, a strategy that's been explicitly rejected by both Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex.

Murphy has no plan to solve the state's fiscal crisis. Believe me, I've asked his people, over and over. And it's not just me. Legislators don't know of any plan either. He's done nothing to prepare the public for any painful measures, and even less to marshal legislative support.

That, folks, is not normal.

Remember Christie's first year? Like him or not, he knew where he wanted to go and had a plan to get there. He held about 1,000 town hall meetings emphasizing the need to reduce health and pension benefits, to cap property tax hikes, to lower health costs. He met with Democratic legislative leaders constantly and found a bipartisan coalition that got most of that done.

Murphy has no plan. He has no coalition in the Legislature. He meets with legislative leaders once every few months, and they come away saying he doesn't know the material well and doesn't close deals.

"The governor is just not taking this seriously, and that's a real problem," says Sweeney.

The February fight will center on taxes. Murphy said last week he won't rule out more tax hikes, but he'd need support from Sweeney and Coughlin to do that, and they both say it's not going to happen - at least not until Murphy gets serious about cutting spending by reducing pension and health benefits. Sweeney has presented a plan to do just that, and Murphy hasn't offered a speck of support.

Do women govern differently? Look at Trenton this week. | Moran

"If you don't like my plan, where is yours?" Sweeney asks. "To raise taxes just kicks the can down the road. That is the problem. If revenue is needed as part of a solution, then ok, let's have that conversation. But we have to fix the structural problems first."

If Murphy is smart, he'll take that deal. He'll agree to Sweeney's spending cuts, in return for legislative support for a hike in the millionaire's tax, everyone's favorite.

I hope that happens. Because this fiscal crisis is a slow-moving disaster. It's the reason NJ Transit is such a mess. And if we don't fix it, education and health care could be next.

Murphy will return from Tanzania just as legislators resume the investigation into Brennan's treatment. A month or so later, he's required by law to present his budget.

So let's hope he's getting a lot of rest on the safari. He's going to need all the mojo he's got when he arrives home.

More: Tom Moran columns 

Tom Moran may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or call (973) 836-4909. Follow him on Twitter @tomamoran. Find NJ.com Opinion on Facebook.


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