Gov. Phil Murphy spent much time looking back on the pandemic and his administration’s policy achievements in the final State of the State address of his first term in office, even as he targeted a series of stalled reforms.
“We have lived this truth together — that New Jersey was one of the first and hardest-hit states,” Murphy said in his first livestreamed State of the State. “That our communities of color have been disproportionately impacted. And that we are currently battling a second wave which is just as brutal as the first.”
Headed into his re-election race, Murphy spent much time stressing movement on his 2017 campaign promises.
He pointed to the state’s enactment of a millionaire’s tax, a key campaign promise that had stalled for years amid trepidation from Democratic legislative leaders over how such a tax would affect the state with the federal state and local tax deduction capped at $10,000.
Lawmakers approved that measure in September, months after COVID-19 began wreaking havoc on the state’s finances.
“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 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 touted the state’s passage of a $15 minimum wage law, which earlier this month pushed base wages for most workers rise to $12 an hour. He also celebrated a controversial recently signed bill authorizing the state to issue $14.5 billion in tax incentives that was criticized for the opaqueness and break-neck pace of its passage.
But much, perhaps even most, of the governor’s latest address was devoted to a virus that has drastically changed residents lives over the past 10 months.
The administration’s response there — hailed from both sides of the political aisle in the pandemic’s early months and attacked by Republicans in more recent ones — saw a protracted shutdown of most businesses in the state, pushed residents into unemployment in record numbers, left nearly 20,000 New Jerseyans dead and made Murphy a household name.
“When we emerge from the darkness of the pandemic, together, we will be stronger, fairer and more resilient than before, and we will be prepared to move forward as one state and one family,” the governor said.
More than the pandemic’s effect on the state, Murphy stressed his administrations response to the virus. He pointed to rent and mortgage moratoriums that have halted evictions and foreclosures amid a crisis the likes of which the country last saw more than a century ago.
He lauded his administration’s efforts to bridge a digital divide made starkly clear after schools shuttered their doors to stem the spread of the virus but acknowledged there was still a ways to go.
“I wish I could tell you that no child is falling behind in this disruptive year. But I can’t,” Murphy said. “That is why our focus must turn to ensuring our students have the academic and social-emotional support needed as they rebound from the stresses of the pandemic. We have already begun to direct funding to school districts that need the most help in getting students back on track.”
He also conceded that marijuana legalization, approved by voters more than two months ago, was moving forward at a laggard pace.
“We’re setting up a cannabis industry that will promote the growth of new small businesses, many of which will be owned by women, minorities, and veterans,” he said. “This hasn’t been an easy fight, nor has it happened as quickly as I would have liked, but we are in a better place, a smarter place and a more just place than ever before.”
Looking toward the future, Murphy briefly signaled the revival of an ethics reform package he introduced last year.
Those bills, which would have removed a widely used legislative exemption to the Open Public Records Act, banned a shadow lobbying, overhauled legislative financial disclosures and required bills be publicly available online, in their final form, for 72 hours before seeing a vote.
“Last year, I was proud to propose the first comprehensive set of ethics reforms in a decade, with bipartisan support, and I remain committed to them,” Murphy said. “New Jerseyans need to know — not just believe — that their government has their backs.”
The measures were dead on arrival.
Though Democrats in the legislature were open to some of the provisions — Senate President Steve Sweeney repeatedly said he’d block the OPRA reform bill but supported the shadow lobbying and financial disclosure measures — their attitudes changed after Murphy gave sponsorships Republican legislators in vulnerable seats.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo (D-Northfield) called the inclusion of State Sen. Chris Brown (R-Ventnor City) and Assemblyman Ryan Peters (R-Hainesport) “a slap in the face,” and the reform package, introduced just weeks before the state’s first case of COVID-19, has since languished in legislative limbo.
The result was foreseeable. The governor, not to mention his staff, were aware Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) rarely moves bills sponsored by vulnerable Republicans in his chamber, and they knew Coughlin wanted the Peters’ Assembly seat, a post Democrats ran a close race for just months earlier.
But some of the governor’s future endeavors are unlikely to cause much controversy in the legislature’s majority conferences.
Foremost among those is Murphy’s push for in-person early voting, a policy backed — at least in concept — by Sweeney and Coughlin.
“I am already working with the legislature to enact a true, in-person early voting law, among other measures, to further open up our democracy,” he said. “Regardless of your party affiliation, your vote is your voice and this country is better off when more of us are heard.”
Negotiations over early voting are still at a nascent stage, and while election officials are concerned about its feasibility for races this year, all indicators point to Democrats pushing ahead with the policy.
Should an early voting bill make its way to beneath one of the governor’s pens, it’d follow a series of unprecedented elections in 2020 that were conducted almost entirely through mail-in ballots and led to significant spikes in turnout — ones large enough to spur record voter participation November’s election.
Murphy also recommitted himself to passing a bill excising mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines for some drug and property crimes.
That measure, which initially saw widespread support among legislators, stalled after State Sen. Nick Sacco (D-North Bergen) added an amendment removing minimum sentences for official misconduct.
“These reforms are long-overdue. As the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, ‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’” the governor said. “We must get this done.”