TRENTON — Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday said he would try again to pass a tax on millionaires, while also focusing on ethics reforms meant to change the way Trenton operates, in his second State of the State address.
Murphy, speaking to both houses of the Legislature, spoke on a number of economic issues, including a new office that will work to reduce health-care costs and make insurance more affordable to state residents.
He also called for new laws to reduce the influence of special interests in state politics and reforms to attack the “pernicious sexism and abuse that still creeps across these hallways, at conferences, and in meeting rooms” in Trenton.
“I am calling for us all to work together to tear down the existing system and replace it with one that treats everyone with equal dignity and respect,” Murphy said. “I am calling on my partners in government to join me in this mission.”
Workplace culture and sexual harassment have been hot topics in Trenton. On Monday, Murphy signed into law five bills that would require state government workplaces to be more responsive to harassment claims.
“We all must be disgusted by the stories which women … tell of their mistreatment by men who felt empowered, if not protected, by Trenton’s culture,” Murphy said. “For too many years, too many people in power have turned their eyes away from behavior they knew was not only happening but was pervasive in Trenton.”
Last month, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg formed an ad hoc committee to address what she calls the “toxic climate of misogyny, harassment, and sexual assault” in state politics.
This comes after the Newark Star-Ledger detailed claims by at least 20 female staffers that they were sexually harassed, assaulted, or groped as recently as last year while working in state government or on political campaigns. Some assaults were said to have happened at two popular political gatherings, hosted by New Jersey’s Chamber of Commerce and the League of Municipalities.
In 2018, a special legislative committee held hearings after a top staffer to Murphy, Katie Brennan, accused a former fellow Murphy campaign aide of raping her in 2017. The aide, Albert Alvarez, lost his job in the Murphy administration after the accusations became public.
Murphy also called for stronger financial disclosure laws and reforms to the state’s “pay-to-play” regulations, saying lawmakers "must do more to gain the trust of our residents and decrease their rightful cynicism.”
His speech came on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether two aides to former Gov. Chris Christie committed fraud when they helped close down multiple lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political retribution against a New Jersey mayor.
Murphy also recommitted to passing a tax on millionaires, an initiative that has proved elusive for the Democrat.
“I am not giving up the fight for a millionaires’ tax,” Murphy said to rousing applause. “A millionaires’ tax can ease the property tax burden on millions of middle-class families and seniors, and do more to help fund our public schools.”
This could set up Murphy for another showdown with Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), who opposes the tax and favors removing a cap on property tax increases to help struggling school districts.
"[This] is sure to create a sequel to last year’s battle with the state Legislature and especially State Senate President Sweeney,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, "once again putting the possibility of its passage seriously in doubt.”
Democratic lawmakers twice have stalled Murphy’s attempts to advance the initiative, saying New Jersey must first spend less. Murphy, a millionaire himself, wants to raise the tax on incomes over $1 million from 8.97% to 10.75%, potentially netting the state $450 million, according to administration budget estimates.
GOP leaders have made Murphy’s proposed millionaires’ tax the centerpiece of their criticism of his tenure.
“It doesn’t matter what fee, what tax, you’re talking about," said Doug Steinhardt, chairman of the New Jersey GOP. "Folks in New Jersey understand taxes always come home to roost in the homes of the middle class.”
Murphy announced the creation of an Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency that will work across state agencies to cut health-care costs, make insurance prices transparent, and lower premiums for New Jersey residents.
Murphy touted numerous accomplishments, including a law that is gradually phasing in a $15-an-hour minimum wage, along with a law to curb illegal firearms sales and reduce gun suicides. Murphy also noted he restored funds for Planned Parenthood and signed a bill letting undocumented immigrants get a driver’s license. He indicated he’s not finished.
“At no point have we sat back and claimed, ‘Mission accomplished,'” Murphy said. “I am not going to lose sight of who it is we have to look out for. In our effort to make New Jersey stronger, we will not leave out our middle class or those striving to join its ranks.”