Speaking from an empty theater in Trenton as the coronavirus continues to rage, Gov. Phil Murphy issued a pre-recorded State of the State address Tuesday touting his accomplishments as he runs for a second term and vowing to help New Jersey emerge from the pandemic “stronger, fairer, and more resilient than before.”
In the closest thing to a re-election speech he’s delivered so far, the Democratic governor promised aid in areas that could cause him grief on the campaign trail — notably businesses struggling in the pandemic’s wake, as well as perpetually troubled NJ Transit.
Meanwhile, Murphy expressed optimism about leaders reaching an agreement to finally allow legal marijuana sales to begin in New Jersey, despite a recent deal falling apart.
And he called for implementing something leaders have long discussed but not yet realized: early in-person voting in the Garden State.
“Three years ago, I took office with a pledge to rebuild New Jersey from the middle out and from the bottom up, to change the way Trenton works not simply for the sake of change but for the sake of people, to put working and middle-class families first,” Murphy said in the relatively short, 35-minute speech. “That mission is now even more urgent.”
Still, Murphy did not address some of the controversies that have hounded his administration during the pandemic — namely COVID-19 policies at nursing homes and longterm care facilities, where more than 7,000 people have died; virus breakouts at prisons; long lines at motor vehicle offices; and issues with the state’s aging unemployment system, with some people waiting months for payments.
MORE: Read Gov. Phil Murphy’s full 2021 State of the State address
Usually, governors deliver these addresses in a crowded chamber of the state Statehouse, to multiple rounds of applause and standing ovations.
But Murphy delivered his third State of the State speech in a socially distanced matter. He recorded it Sunday night at a vacant and quiet Trenton War Memorial theater and broadcast it Tuesday afternoon — the same day the state’s COVID-19 death toll surpassed 20,000 residents and as officials continue to roll out the early stages of vaccinations.
“Everything together shows the promise of the new, post-COVID day that is just beginning to dawn,” Murphy said. “It’s a day we will enter not fearing what’s next but knowing where we’re heading.”
“Because of all we did together, here in New Jersey, 2021 can be the year where dreams are once again possible, and the wind is at our back,” the governor added.
But state Senate Majority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, criticized Murphy after the speech for issuing “arbitrary executive orders” during the crisis and accused the administration of a “total lack of transparency” when it comes to vaccination schedules and reopening businesses and schools.
“If Governor Murphy truly wants to make New Jersey stronger in the year ahead, he should learn from the mistakes of 2020 and work to build consensus with other elected leaders,” Kean said. “That’s how we’ll achieve the best outcome for all New Jerseyans.”
A VICTORY LAP
The speech comes as Murphy, riding high approval numbers in the wake of the pandemic, runs for re-election in November. And early in the address, he touted numerous the things he accomplished with the Democratic-controlled state Legislature during his first three years — including major planks of his 2017 campaign platform.
They included raising the state’s minimum wage and passing earned sick leave, as well as expanding paid family leave and medical leave, and even getting his long-sought millionaires tax last year after failing twice to get the more moderate leaders of the Legislature to agree.
But state Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, slammed Murphy for supporting tax increases and said it’s time the governor to “enact sane, fiscal policies.”
HIS PLAN FOR BUSINESSES AND TRANSPORTATION
Republicans have repeatedly blasted Murphy for installing unprecedented restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 that gravely harmed businesses in the state. And the governor came into office with an ailing transportation system which he promised to improve, repeating maybe hundreds of times that he’ll fix NJ Transit “if it kills me.”
Both issues are expected to loom large in the gubernatorial election.
Addressing the former Tuesday, Murphy promoted a massive — and controversial — $14 billion corporate tax incentive program he recently signed into law. The aim is to attract businesses to settle in the state and keep others from leaving, though the measure was criticized by some for being fast-tracked through the state Legislature and sent to Murphy just three weeks after it was introduced.
“We set out to create a new system that is transparent and fair, which focuses not on huge corporations, but on job-creating small businesses and innovative startups,” Murphy said. “A system that, most of all, promotes good-paying, future-focused jobs. A system that has sensible caps in spending and an inspector general to safeguard every penny of taxpayer money.”
Still, Eileen Kean, the state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said Murphy’s speech “had a lot of slick video production, but there wasn’t much there for small businesses.”
“When he listed his accomplishments, many have been mandates that are harmful to small businesses because they raised the overall cost of doing business,” Kean added.
On transportation, Murphy highlighted the number new engineers NJ Transit added to the ranks and the others in training. He also championed the plan to replace the 110-year-old Portal Bridge, which the federal government just gave final approval.
Then there’s the push for the Gateway Tunnel, a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River that outgoing Republican President Donald Trump held up funding for but Democratic President-elect Joe Biden supports.
“We are leaving for the next generation a rail system wholly different than the one we inherited,” Murphy said. “We are making historic investments in our roads and bridges. We are reimagining our airports and seaports. Put together, we are embarking on the largest infrastructure investment program in the history of our state.”
But Murphy did not address whether any of this will lead to fare hikes.
A little more than 10 months after its first COVID-19 case, Murphy said the state has a plan to vaccinate “every willing New Jersey adult resident.”
Still, the state’s early, phased-in rollout has faced criticism for being too slow. New Jersey has received 651,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines, according to figures tracked by the CDC. State officials report 233,555 doses have been administered — 212,069 first doses and 21,289 second doses, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard.
Murphy promised the program will continue to grow.
“Be assured, we will get back to being able to gather and celebrate with our families and friends,” he said. “We will be able to see all our children back in the schools they love. We will see our economy recover and flourish.”
Murphy also addressed an early campaign promise that is now inevitable but has been slow to materialize: the legalization of recreational marijuana.
After several failed attempts by lawmakers to pass a bill, voters in November passed a referendum to make weed legal in New Jersey. But two months later, disagreements have derailed multiple attempts to pass legislation that would put the program in place. A deal on the most recent “cleanup” bill fell apart last week.
It’s unclear what happens next, and Murphy didn’t provide new insight Tuesday into the matter. Instead, he said New Jersey is “on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.”
“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,” he added.
Tuesday’s speech lacked a laundry list of proposals for the coming year, but Murphy added one thing to his agenda: finally instituting early in-person voting in New Jersey. The state is one of only 12 in the U.S. that doesn’t allow people to vote in person before Election Day.
Last year’s elections were shaken and reshaped by the pandemic, with New Jersey conducting mostly mail-in voting — which led to record voter turnout in the state.
“Now, it’s time to take the next step, and 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,” Murphy said. “Regardless of your party affiliation, your vote is your voice and this country is better off when more of us are heard.”
Democrats have long pushed to add New Jersey to that list and are now considering a new bill. But the question is if they can get it done in time for the June primary, when Murphy and all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot. One issue is money because instituting the new system would cost tens of millions of dollars.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE AND ETHICS REFORM
Murphy also renewed his push to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences in New Jersey for nonviolent drug and property crimes.
There was a bill in the Legislature last year to accomplish that, though the measure was derailed after it was quietly altered it to include official misconduct — something Murphy has said he’s against.
“We must get this done,” he said in his speech.
Murphy also renewed a proposal he introduced in last year’s State of the State address — to install ethic reforms in New Jersey, including disclosing more information on who influences politicians and tightening rules to hold state lawmakers more accountable.
Those plans stalled last year, and Murphy has faced criticism over transparency during the pandemic. He signed a law sponsored by fellow Democrats relaxing how quickly clerks must respond to requests for public records, and his administration has declined records requests by citing the state’s public-health emergency law.
But Murphy said he remains committed to his improving ethics.
“New Jerseyans need to know — not just believe — that their government has their backs,” he said. “With all the turmoil in Washington, let’s set New Jersey as an example for moving forward.”
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