- Associated Press - Friday, May 12, 2017

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) - Raising income taxes on millionaires? Yes. Legalizing marijuana? Let’s go there. A $15 minimum wage? You bet. Rejoining a regional greenhouse gas alliance? That’ll happen near Day 1 if elected.

The leading Democratic candidates for New Jersey governor agreed on a host of ideas at Thursday night’s second and last official debate in the June 6 primary. They, of course, don’t agree on the big question of who should succeed Republican Chris Christie. Front-runner Phil Murphy took some hits for using his wealth to build his campaign.

But they also disagreed on a few key areas.

A closer look at the debate highlights:

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A PROGRESSIVE AGENDA

New Jersey tilts Democratic, with roughly 800,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. Both the state’s U.S. senators and seven of its five House members are Democrats, and the party controls the state Legislature, which is a proving ground for many liberal-backed ideas.

So it wasn’t surprising that during Thursday’s roughly 90-minute debate among the four leading candidates - Murphy, Jim Johnson, state Sen. Ray Lesniak, and Assemblyman John Wisniewski - they all mostly agreed on what the big issues are and how to fix them.

The candidates endorsed the idea of raising the state’s income tax on millionaires to meet public pension obligations; decriminalizing and legalizing marijuana as a way to generate revenue and keep lower-income offenders out of jail; raising the minimum wage to $15 from $8.44 an hour; and re-entering a greenhouse gas marketplace that Christie backed out of.

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PUBLIC BANK

Despite their agreement, the candidates took issue with Murphy’s key idea of establishing a public bank in New Jersey. Murphy cast the idea as a powerful tool to keep capital within the state and to combat big-business interests, a regular boogeyman among Democrats.

“I don’t think anybody right here is harder on Wall Street,” Murphy said.

But Wisniewski was skeptical about the idea, saying that the same insiders who got the state into its current fiscal state - a reference to the state’s 11 credit downgrades - cannot solve those problems. The loans from a public bank would go to political insiders, Wisniewski said.

Johnson, a former Clinton administration Treasury official, called the bank a “bad idea.”

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SINGLE-PAYER HEALTH CARE

The candidates agreed that health care should be universal, but only Wisniewski called for transforming New Jersey’s health care system into a single-payer plan. He acknowledged the cost that goes along with the idea but argued that through consolidation, the state could save $6 billion or $7 billion, though he didn’t say how exactly.

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THE STAKES

The candidates are vying to succeed the term-limited Christie, whose job approval is near record lows. New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states with governor’s races this year.

The races come as national Democrats grapple with how to regain a political foothold ahead of the midterm elections and as Republican President Donald Trump is unpopular in the polls. It’s a dynamic the New Jersey candidates are aware of and one they’re hoping puts wind in their sails.

Murphy, for instance, said the two New Jersey Republican congressmen who voted in favor of the Trump-backed health care overhaul should pay a political price. The stakes are also high for Murphy who has loaned his campaign $15 million of his own money. So far, the polls show he’s leading his rivals. New Jersey voters, who pay the highest property taxes in the country, also have a stake. The polls show they’re going with Murphy in the primary and general elections.

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WHAT’S NEXT?

The leading Republican candidates Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli will meet May 18, also in Newark on NJTV, for their second debate.

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