This story was written and produced by NJ Spotlight. It is being republished under a special NJ News Commons content-sharing agreement related to COVID-19 coverage. To read more, visit njspotlight.com.
An ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with its rising death toll and statewide shutdowns, has toughened New Jersey residents and reinforced the need for economic policies that strengthen the middle class and small businesses, Gov. Phil Murphy said during his annual State of the State address on Tuesday.
Murphy, a first-term Democrat who faces reelection later this year, also praised his administration’s handling of the health crisis — which has resulted in thousands of deaths and also crippled the state economy — and said the focus is now on a major vaccination effort that will help residents see “light on the horizon get a little brighter.”
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the speech was pre-recorded inside an empty theater instead of delivered live at the State House before a joint session of the Legislature in Trenton.
“I don’t need to tell you these are different times. So, this is a different kind of speech,” Murphy said in his prepared remarks.
“Yet for all the changes, the most important things remain constant. Our values, our priorities, our vision, and that we are all New Jerseyans,” he went on to say.
Murphy highlighted a series of policies he’s been able to get through the Legislature since taking office in early 2018, saying those actions have better positioned the state for a widespread recovery from the pandemic. Among examples, he cited an increased minimum wage, recently reformed corporate tax-incentive programs and efforts to create a more transparent health care system in New Jersey.
“Although wounded deeply, we enter 2021 tougher than ever, wiser than before, and ready to move forward together,” Murphy said.
This year’s State of the State address comes nearly a year after the first coronavirus cases were detected in New Jersey, triggering a response that involved planning for the rationing of ventilators and orders for residents to wear masks. Murphy, in a series of executive orders aimed at slowing the rate of new infections, required widespread restrictions on economic activity, schools and other social activities.
Murphy’s approval rating has soared during the pandemic, positioning him well for this year’s reelection campaign. But state services faltered over the last year. The unemployment system failed to keep up under a crushing demand and COVID-19 outbreaks forced closures of many Motor Vehicle Commission offices. Both spurred public outrage.
Murphy has also faced criticism for his administration’s response to the infections at nursing homes, where there have been a significant number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. And on the political front, he and fellow Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature remain gridlocked over how to regulate legalized marijuana use — more than two months after New Jersey voters widely approved adult-use cannabis legalization at the polls.
Wages, taxes, business
Among the policy successes Murphy praised during Tuesday’s speech was an ongoing ramp-up to a $15 hourly minimum wage that was triggered by a law he enacted in 2019. The hourly rate increased to $12 for most minimum-wage workers earlier this month, and it is on course to hit $15 by 2024.
Murphy also pointed to a massive, $14.4 billion corporate tax-break bill that was signed into law just last week. The law restored and reformed several tax-incentive programs, and also created new ones to promote things like historic preservation and brownfield redevelopment.
He also highlighted his administration’s efforts to use loans and other programs to support restaurants and other small businesses that have been devastated by the pandemic and the economic restrictions it triggered. The tax-break law also set aside $50 million in funding for small businesses.
“Our small business community is the backbone not only of our local economies, but of our state’s economy. These are the shops and restaurants that turn a town into a community,” Murphy said.
Optimistic about marijuana
He was also optimistic while addressing the marijuana issue, saying he and lawmakers, despite their ongoing impasse, are “on the verge” of passing new laws that will regulate and decriminalize cannabis.
Murphy also focused on the positive while speaking about New Jersey Transit, the state’s beleaguered mass-transit agency, by highlighting things like the increased hiring of engineers and recently secured federal funding for the replacement of a faltering, century-old rail bridge spanning the Hackensack River.
“As New Jersey starts getting back to work, commuters will find that NJ Transit is safer and more accountable,” Murphy said.
On the issue of education, Murphy praised efforts to overcome the so-called digital divide as students and teachers across the state have been forced into remote-learning settings for long stretches.
He said New Jersey’s education system, though stress-tested by the pandemic, has maintained its high ranking among U.S. states. But the governor also conceded, “We have room to do better and to bring more schools, more students, and more communities, under that banner.”
And in a likely nod to the political contests that will come later this year as Murphy and all 120 seats in the Legislature will be on the November ballot, the governor pushed back preemptively against calls for reduced taxes and spending.
Last year, Murphy faced widespread criticism from Republicans for hiking taxes, including on millionaires, and borrowing billions of dollars, without voter approval, to sustain a year-over-year spending increase despite major revenue losses triggered by the pandemic.
“Some in New Jersey are suggesting the same old failed policies of decades past,” Murphy said.
“They forget that, after the last economic downturn, the prior (Republican) administration cut taxes for millionaires, cut vital programs, left middle- and working-class residents behind, and, as a result, we had the slowest recovery of any state in the nation,” he went on to say.