Murphy: NJ “deeply hurt”, but ready to move on
An ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, with its rising death toll and statewide closures, has toughened New Jersey residents and heightened the need for economic policies that strengthen the middle class and small businesses Governor Phil Murphy said in his annual State of the State address. Tuesday.
Pre-recorded in an empty theater instead of being live before a joint session of the Legislature at State House in Trenton, Murphy’s speech came as the governor and his administration continue to grapple with the health crisis and the economic downturn that it triggered.
Murphy, a first-term Democrat facing re-election later this year, bluntly praised his administration’s response to the pandemic and ongoing efforts to vaccinate residents. Moving quickly to other topics, he used much of the over 30-minute speech to highlight other policies adopted since taking office in early 2018.
They included an increase in the minimum wage, recently reformed corporate tax incentive programs and the establishment of a more transparent health care system in New Jersey. He also highlighted efforts to promote cleaner energy production, increase funding for public education and improve public transport.
“Although deeply hurt, we enter 2021 harder than ever, wiser than before and ready to move forward together,” he said.
Not everyone agreed with the governor’s assessment. They included Republican lawmakers and other GOP officials who criticized major elements of the governor’s response to the pandemic, including his management of nursing homes and the economy.
Meanwhile, reactions from business groups have been mixed. They found reason to be optimistic, but also expressed concerns about the continuing plight of small businesses and rising taxes and borrowing.
Senatorial Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union) called on the governor to “be prepared to work bipartisanly with the Legislature”, suggesting that such an approach could have yielded better results.
“We could have prevented the policy failures that resulted in needless deaths in our nursing homes and veterans, the shutdown of nearly a third of New Jersey’s small businesses and the unemployment of nearly two million New Jerseyans. “Kean said.
This state-of-the-state address comes nearly a year after the first cases of the coronavirus were detected in New Jersey, triggering a response that involved planning the rationing of ventilators and ordering residents to wear masks . Murphy, in a series of executive orders to slow the rate of new infections, demanded widespread restrictions on economic activity, schools and other social activities.
Murphy’s approval rating has skyrocketed during the pandemic, positioning him well for this year’s re-election campaign. But many state services have faltered over the past year. The unemployment system has failed to keep up with overwhelming demand as the unemployment rate soars above 10% and COVID-19 outbreaks have forced many offices of the Motor Vehicle Commission to close. . Both sparked public outrage.
Murphy has also been criticized for his administration’s response to infections in nursing homes, where there have been a significant number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. And politically, he and his fellow Democrats who control both houses of the Legislature remain stuck on how to regulate legalized marijuana use – more than two months on. New Jersey voters widely endorsed legalization of cannabis for adult use at the ballot box.
Among the political successes listed by Murphy in Tuesday’s speech was a continued push towards an hourly minimum wage of $ 15 that was sparked by a law he enacted in 2019. The hourly rate has risen to $ 12 for most minimum wage workers earlier this month, and it’s on track to hit $ 15 by 2024.
Murphy also pointed out a huge, $ 14.4 billion in tax relief for businesses which was enacted 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 has triggered. The tax relief act also provided $ 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. It’s the shops and restaurants that turn a city into a community, ”he said.
On the pandemic itself, Murphy praised those responsible for his administration for handling the health crisis, including an ongoing vaccination effort that he said would help residents “start to see the light on the horizon.” become a little brighter ”.
Optimistic about marijuana
The governor was also optimistic in addressing the marijuana problem, saying that he and lawmakers, despite their dead end, are “about” to pass new laws that will regulate and decriminalize cannabis.
Murphy also focused on the positive when speaking about New Jersey Transit, the state’s beleaguered transit agency, highlighting things like the increased hiring of engineers and the recently secured federal funding for the replacement. of a faulty century-old railway bridge spanning the Hackensack River. The deadline for a nationwide mandatory installation of new safety equipment was also narrowly met by NJ Transit last month.
“As New Jersey begins to return to work, commuters will find that NJ Transit is safer and more responsible,” Murphy said.
On the issue of education, Murphy praised efforts to overcome the so-called Numeric fraction while students and teachers across the state have been forced into distance learning settings for long periods of time.
He said New Jersey’s education system, although strained by the pandemic, has maintained its high rank among US states. But the governor also conceded: “We have the opportunity to do better and bring more schools, more students and more communities, under this banner.”
He also reaffirmed his commitment to an ethics reform program that stuck in the Legislature for about a year. But his unsuccessful efforts to create a state-owned bank were not mentioned in the speech, despite being a political goal oft-repeated during his 2017 campaign.
And in a likely nod to the political competitions that will take place later this year when Murphy and the 120 seats in the Legislature are on the November ballot, the governor has preemptively pushed back calls for a reduction in voting power. taxes and expenses.
Last year, Murphy faced a lot of criticism from Republicans for raise taxes, including on millionaires, and borrow billions of dollars without voter approval, to support an increase in spending from one year to the next.
“Our long-standing inequalities have never been felt more severely than in the past ten months,” Murphy said. “To blunt them, we have to accept the fact that we cannot develop and strengthen the middle class by pulling the rug under it – and that we cannot cut and narrow our path to growth and opportunity.”
But in a response given online after the speech ended, Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union) strongly disagreed. Instead, Bramnick blamed Murphy for enacting dozens of tax hikes he said were causing residents and businesses to flee the state.
“This is why it’s so important that we start to move away from raising taxes,” Bramnick said.
Bramnick’s measured response
Bramnick was careful to criticize Murphy’s policies in a measured manner, stressing that their disagreements are not personal as he spoke less than a week after an angry mob instigated by President Donald Trump attacked the U.S. Capitol in an unsuccessful attempt to stop formal certification from last year. presidential election results.
“Be clear: I respect Governor Murphy, as a person and as governor of the state,” Bramnick said.
In her response, Eileen Kean, state director of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, a group that represents independent small businesses, took issue with Murphy’s description of recent efforts to help small businesses in New Jersey.
“The governor’s speech featured a lot of smooth video production, but there wasn’t much for small businesses,” Kean said in a statement. “In fact, when he listed his accomplishments, many were damaging small business mandates because they increased the overall cost of doing business. “
However, Murphy’s speech drew praise from civil servants’ unions and progressive groups who warned against responding to the pandemic through spending cuts and other austerity measures.
“Gov. Phil Murphy – helped by a stronger legislature – made sensible and wise decisions about our state’s budget, priorities and public health, ”said Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey director for the Communications Workers union of America.
“The state governor and lawmakers deserve enormous credit for the way they are handling the pandemic, especially given the federal government’s lack of leadership,” said Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective, a group left-wing think tank based in Trenton.