The commission appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy to study how the state’s economy can be reopened is heavy on think tanks, analysts and academics. Health care executives and representatives from New Jersey’s business associations and small business groups are largely absent. Though AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka offers union representation, nary a Tom Bracken-type was to be found.
New Jersey Chamber of Commerce President Bracken himself noted the commission is filled with “very high-level people with international and national experience, so obviously their job, in my estimation, would be more guidance than tactical.”
He added: “There was a reason he picked the people he did. I think the mandate of the committee hasn’t been that well-articulated, so I assume once the mission of that group is outlined, it’ll be more clear why those people were chosen.”
Organizations that represent the business community, such as the Chamber, the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, and the Commerce and Industry Association of NJ are more suited for a tactical group, Bracken said, which would address “on the ground type issues” and “feed to the larger group to mesh and formulate their plan.”
The governor stood by his picks for the commission.
“We don’t see a light switch, we see sort of a dimmer switch getting turned on gradually and we need as much input and advice, particularly from a variety of perspectives,” Murphy said at a press briefing in Trenton on April 29.
The commission lacks three of the power-players in the state’s health care industries: Atlantic Health System President and Chief Executive Officer Brian Gragnolati, Hackensack Meridian Health President and CEO Robert Garrett, and RWJBarnabas Health President and CEO Barry Ostrowsky.
RWJ Executive Vice President Amy Mansue was initially mentioned as a potential leader on the commission, which Murphy dubbed a “skunkworks team.”
“I love Amy, by the way. Let’s make sure Amy’s on our list,” the governor said in early April.
“[T]hose are folks we know intimately. We know those systems,” Murphy said on April 29 “Judy [Persichilli] deals with them literally every day. I deal with their leadership every day. They’re already here. They’re part of us.”
And they’re baked into the first four steps of the administration’s response, the governor said. “Four of them are heavy health care, the curves down, testing protocols, contact tracing protocols, isolation protocols,” he said.
The commission has five ex-officio members from the Murphy administration. Members from his cabinet are Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver and State Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli. And from his office are Chief Counsel Matt Platkin, Chief of Staff George Helmy and Chief Policy Advisor Kathleen Frangione.
Figures such as Center for American Progress President and Chief Executive Officer Neera Tanden have “been explicitly and particularly good … at how to deal with this pandemic and everything from, how do you shut down versus how do you reopen,” according to Murphy.
A CAP study, released on April 3, called for nationwide and statewide stay-at-home policies to run from April 5 to May 20, a prohibition on non-essential travel and restrictions on mass transit.
Any relaxation of the closures needs to include “[b]enchmarks for when restrictions can be eased, with some restrictions on large gatherings and mass transit remaining until herd immunity is achieved,” the study adds.
Another figure – Evelyn McGee Colbert – founding board member and president of the board of Montclair Film and vice president of Spartina Productions would offer a perspective of how arts and culture would not be left out of the state’s economic recovery, according to Murphy.
“Evie’s bias is obviously in the arts, we want to make sure we’re not just America’s leading STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Math] state, but continue to be America’s leading STEAM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math] state when the dust settles,” Murphy said.
Republicans in the state Legislature have been critical of Murphy’s shutdown orders, with the GOP nationwide rejecting lockdowns and business closures, skeptical of their effectiveness or necessity.
“Over the last few weeks, we have witnessed with awe and pride an amazing transformation in the attitudes and practices of individual New Jerseyans as they adopted necessary social distancing and personal protective measures that just months ago would have been unthinkable,” reads a joint April 29 letter from several Republicans in the state Senate.
Business owners have already “made detailed plans and taken steps to ensure their ability to reopen while protecting their workers and customers,” the letter adds.
“There’s no reason a shop on Main Street has to remain shut when the convenience store next door is open. If they can put in place the same precautions, Governor Murphy should lift the restrictions he placed on them and let them get back to work.”
Being excluded from this commission does not mean organizations will lack a voice on the question of reopening. CIANJ President Tony Russo told NJBIZ that the governor’s office has been holding three calls a week with the state’s business groups, and though he called those tapped for the commission “qualified people,” he noted the lack of small business representation it presented.
“Small business is a big part of our membership. I think as long as the voice of small business is heard and we can get back to open sooner than later, that’s really what our wish list is. Not to say the big businesses don’t matter, but it needs to be a balance, and the voice of small business really needs to be heard,” Russo said.
So long as small businesses are represented on the subcommittees, expected at a later announcement, Russo said he’ll be satisfied.
“What I think everyone needs to appreciate is businesses are connected. If you’re a restaurant, restaurants have suppliers, plumbers, materials, linens. And in the supply chain, a lot of our members support them – the banker, the lawyer, the accountant, the manufacturer. The food producer that’s creating the food, the truck driver that’s delivering it. Every business is really interconnected,” Russo said.
Not everyone was satisfied with the makeup of the commission. New Jersey Policy Perspective President Brandon McKoy told NJBIZ that while some individuals like Chief Economist at the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University Bill Rodgers and former New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner Lisa Jackson “really know New Jersey,” he’s “hoping to see in the future more individuals who work in and think about New Jersey 24/7, as their perspective is going to be critical to understanding how this virus is affecting the Garden State, and understanding how not to make the mistakes that New Jersey made during the Great Recession so that we don’t have a slow recovery like we did last time.”
Of the 21 members, some, like former Chairman of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System Ben Bernanke, don’t live or work in New Jersey. And according to NJPP’s fall 2019 report “In Brief: Preparing New Jersey for the Next Economic Downturn,” New Jersey hadn’t yet fully recovered from the 2008 economic downturn, and pre-pandemic was one of the least prepared states to weather a future one.
Regarding New Jersey connections, McKoy noted that regional differences dictate that what Essex County needs in the next couple of years is different than Atlantic County, and what Atlantic County needs is different than Camden County, and so forth.
“Having folks that understand those differences and don’t just look at them as a data set is going to be important, not only having an innate understanding of the different parts of the state but having connections to people in those parts of the state is important,” McKoy noted. “Being able to quickly call on some folks, whether they be business owners or members of the faith community or safety net services, this is going to be a broad-reaching recovery.”