Legal marijuana deal called close – but then comes the hard part
SAYREVILLE – One down (just about.) One to go. (But how soon?)
Gov. Phil Murphy entered 2019 with two big unresolved issues on his agenda from his first year in office: Raising the minimum wage and legalizing marijuana.
The $15 minimum wage is due to be approved by lawmakers Thursday, with a signing ceremony soon to follow. And on Tuesday, Murphy, seated in a diner for a photo-op with Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, indicated a deal on adult-use marijuana is inching nearer.
“I don’t know if we’re going to settle it at this booth, but I think we’re close,” Murphy said. “I think we’re close.”
Sweeney said there are one or two hurdles to get over – seemingly big things, including the tax rate – before the tough job begins of rounding up votes among lawmakers.
“I do believe we’re close. Probably one or two hurdles to get over, and at that point hopefully we go to work,” Sweeney said.
“This is one of those issues that is very personal to a lot of members, and you have to respect their beliefs and work hard to try to capture votes at the same time. So it’s not an easy one,” he said.
Murphy said the eventual marijuana vote won’t be as quick and easy as the one on the $15 minimum wage. After months of wrangling, that will wind up going from a deal to final approval in two weeks.
“Marijuana, we need to get an agreement among us that we all feel, as Steve said, that we can all three of us sell hard, because this is going to be hard to get the votes and get it over the goal line,” Murphy said.
While Murphy and Sweeney got together on minimum wage, finally, and profess to be close on the legalization of marijuana, they still clash with uncommon regularity for a pair of Democrats.
Over the weekend on NJTV, Sweeney challenged Murphy to a debate about the state’s fiscal situation and the solutions – particularly those dealing with pensions and health benefits of public workers – that were suggested by a working group organized last year by Sweeney.
Murphy, sitting with Sweeney, demurred when asked the debate challenge by reporters Tuesday.
"I'm working on the early stages of our budget address, which will be in early March. And I think let's let that play out, and we'll see where we go from there,” said Murphy, who said he agrees with many of the working group’s ideas but disagrees with some.
Sweeney said he called for the debate because people say he’s exaggerating the state’s fiscal problems.
"I feel strongly that we need to address some things financially in this state. We spent a lot of time with policy experts, tax experts, government experts,” Sweeney said. “Change has to happen."
Murphy and the legislative leaders met at the Ocean Bay Diner to promote Thursday’s vote on the minimum wage increase, which wasn’t met with universal praise by the diner’s owner, Teddy Lutas.
As the event was getting underway, Murphy asked Lutas if he liked that the minimum wage would be increasing, and Lutas said, “We’ll see” and that he would have to raise prices. He reiterated the point when Coughlin asked about raising the minimum wage for tipped workers, which goes from $2.13 to $5.13 an hour.
"The problem's going to be you have to raise the menu,” Lutas said. “The people who are going to come in, they're not going to pay $5 for a hamburger. They're going to pay $10."
He got even more pointed while talking with reporters afterwards.
"Of course I'm against because the thing is, I'm going to go out of business,” said Lutas, who also owns the Galaxy Diner in Colonia. “I'm going to go out of business because diners, they can't pay 50 percent payroll."
Lutas later issued a written statement through Coughlin’s office saying he wasn't fully aware the minimum wage increase would be done gradually over five years and is not concerned about having to close. Murphy had told during the event that it would be phased in.