Arriving at the halfway mark of his first term, New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy delivered his second State of the State address Tuesday, defending progressive policies he’s pursued and promising again to raise taxes on the rich.
He also called on lawmakers to respond to citizens’ “rightful cynicism” about government with greater transparency.
Murphy, a former executive at Goldman Sachs and an ambassador to Germany under Barack Obama, stuck closely to themes he’s outlined since his earliest days campaigning to succeed Republican Chris Christie: giving more money to schools to meet mandated education funding levels, paying the public pension and shoring up New Jersey Transit’s operations and reputation.
“Even as the new year unfolds, our mission does not change,” Murphy said.
He also promised longterm plans for transit, which he said hadn’t previously existed, as well as new offices for health care transparency and a task force to study wealth disparity. He said he is also launching an initiative called Jobs NJ aimed at helping workers and employers match up.
Republicans, in the minority in state government, panned the speech. GOP state chairman Doug Steinhardt said Democrats only argue over how much to raise taxes.
“New Jersey is in the throes of an affordability crisis and Trenton Democrats are tone deaf to its residents’ needs,” he said in a statement.
A closer look at highlights from the speech:
Murphy campaigned on boosting funding at New Jersey Transit and repairing its badly tarnished image and on Tuesday doubled down on a promise to fix the agency.
The current year’s budget increased the state’s subsidy to the agency by 50% over the previous year’s.
The biggest change in store appears to be a promise to conduct a 10-year strategic plan at the agency as well as a five-year capital plan.
Murphy expressed disbelief at what he said was a lack of longterm planning at the agency, which runs trains and buses statewide.
“These aren’t just ‘new’ plans — it’s actually the first time these have ever been done,” he said.
Murphy said too many residents think state government is out of touch with their lives and behind the times and unveiled plans to overhaul state ethics laws.
He said he will seek to tighten pay-to-play laws, expand transparency and make legislative financial disclosures more open.
“We can and must do more to gain the trust of our residents and to decrease their rightful cynicism,” he said.
He also alluded to recent news coverage detailing a number of allegations of sexual misconduct in state government and called for a wholesale change of behavior among people in government and politics.
“Nothing — I repeat, nothing — more exemplifies that need to change the longstanding culture than the pernicious sexism and abuse that still creeps across these hallways, at conferences, and in meeting rooms,” he said.
TAXES AND WEALTH
Murphy foreshadowed what would be his third attempt at passing a higher income tax on people who make more than $1 million. It was a core campaign promise that has gone unmet because of legislative reluctance.
“I am not giving up the fight for a millionaire’s tax, so we can ease the property tax burden,” Murphy said, as he was interrupted by loud applause.
In New Jersey, property taxes are assessed at the local level and go to pay for schools, among other things. The state has among the highest property taxes in the country, but the state Constitution requires state income taxes to go toward property tax relief, which in practice means state aid for schools.
The governor also said he will establish a task force aimed at studying wealth disparity. He said the task force would include government officials, academics and faith and community leaders and would inform efforts to close wealth gaps in the state.
HEALTH CARE TRANSPARENCY
Murphy announced he is setting up an Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency. The office will work across the Cabinet to reduce consumer health care costs and make insurance more affordable, he said. He also promised it would improve price transparency.
Murphy hinted at his and the Legislature’s failure over the past year to enact new tax incentives for businesses, since a Christie-era program expired in July.
He called on lawmakers — yet again — to work with him to craft a new program. He appeared to gloss over the differences between his preferences and Senate President Steve Sweeney’s. Murphy wants to cap how much money the incentives award, but Sweeney has balked at the proposal.
“Let’s send a clear and unmistakable message to our people that we can successfully tackle the big issues, and that we can put the interests of our taxpayers ahead of the special interests,” Murphy said.
Over the past year, the governor convened a task force that showed special interests played a big role in crafting the now expired program and benefited from the incentives.
Murphy also raised the fatal December attack on a kosher grocery store in Jersey City that left three people dead in the market, as well as Jersey City Detective Joseph Seals, who was killed by the attackers at a nearby cemetery before the shootout. The attackers died in a gunfight with police.
Murphy called the attacks an “act of hate,” and momentarily called attention to Seals’ widow, as well as the Jersey City police chief who attended.
“Let us commit to using this new year to heal the rifts in our society,” Murphy said.