New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy pledged Tuesday to rebuild the state’s economy through investments in small businesses and clean energy. And he touted achievements like a minimum-wage increase and a millionaires tax that he said will help the state’s middle- and working-class residents weather the post-pandemic world.
“When we emerge from the darkness of the pandemic, together, we will be stronger, fairer, and more resilient than before,” Murphy said during his State of the State address. “After all, this is New Jersey. No state has our character. Our backbone. Our attitude. ... We’ve always fought because we’ve always been the underdog.”
Instead of speaking to members of the Legislature at the State House, Murphy prerecorded his third annual address in an empty Trenton theater because of public health guidelines.
In the 30-minute speech, Murphy acknowledged the state still faces the challenges of balancing in-person and remote learning for schoolchildren, controlling coronavirus outbreaks, and getting unemployed New Jerseyans back to work. But Murphy said the state’s COVID-19 response has positioned it for a strong comeback as vaccines continue rolling out to more residents.
Murphy, a wealthy former Goldman Sachs banker, is seeking to make history in November by becoming the first Democratic governor to win reelection since 1977.
He enters the last year of his term with a political wind at his back, having earned high approval ratings in polls for his handling of the pandemic. And while he struggled early on to unify lawmakers in his own party, he has in recent months solidified his Democratic support.
Murphy on Tuesday ticked off several legislative goals he set when he was elected on an unabashedly liberal platform, such as raising the minimum wage, enacting paid sick leave, and hiking taxes on residents who earn more than $1 million a year. He said the economic devastation of the pandemic made those policies more urgent.
“I took office with a pledge to rebuild New Jersey from the middle out and from the bottom up,” he said. “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 he’s working with lawmakers on how to expand voting access, including through in-person early voting. Murphy cited the pandemic in issuing an executive order last year that authorized officials to conduct the 2020 election largely by mail – resulting in record turnout.
At the same time, the push to legalize recreational marijuana, a key Murphy campaign pledge in 2017, has again stalled. Voters overwhelmingly approved legalizing marijuana for adults over 21 in a referendum in November, and Murphy was expected to sign two bills that would establish the terms of the fledgling — and likely lucrative — cannabis industry.
But the deal fell apart last week after Democratic lawmakers and the Murphy administration hit an impasse over penalties for underage possession, leaving the referendum in legal limbo. Murphy expressed optimism Tuesday, saying the state was “in a better place” than before.
“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.
He also promised to push ethics reform in Trenton, a priority for 2020 that was back-burnered by the pandemic. And he defended his support for a bill that drew anger from some progressives last month, one that gives away almost $15 billion in corporate tax credits.
Murphy said the bill will help jump-start the economy, grow small businesses as the pandemic recedes, and safeguard taxpayer money through spending caps and an inspector general.
“The old ways worked for too few and left too many behind,” he said. “This is what change looks like. This is what putting people ahead of the powerful looks like. This is what focusing on Main Street looks like.”
Murphy also touted his administration’s advances on investing in clean energy like offshore wind, and said the state’s Economic Development Authority has kept small businesses afloat this year through loans and grants. He said President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration will support the state’s infrastructure goals, like building new tunnels under the Hudson River.
His restrictions on schools and businesses, especially restaurants, have led to backlash that Republicans say will hurt his reelection chances this fall. After Murphy’s speech, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. urged Murphy to be more transparent about virus-related guidelines, and to work with Republicans on future policy decisions.
“We could have prevented the policy failures that led to unnecessary deaths in our nursing and veterans homes, the closure of nearly one-third of New Jersey’s small businesses, and the unemployment of nearly two-million New Jerseyans,” Kean said in a statement. “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.”
The vaccine rollout will be a test for Murphy in the weeks and months ahead.
Public health officials around the country have struggled to match the high demand for the vaccines with sometimes unpredictable shipments from the federal government. Murphy, who served as U.S. ambassador to Germany when Biden was vice president, has said he’s confident the incoming administration will move fast on distribution.
“We have in place a plan to vaccinate every willing New Jersey adult resident,” he said Tuesday, “and hundreds of thousands have already rolled up their sleeves.”