Gov. Phil Murphy and his Republican challenger, former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, met in a Sept. 28 debate with the candidates clashing over the incumbent’s handling of the pandemic, his response to Tropical Storm Ida, LGBTQ rights and law enforcement policies.
In the hour-long event at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Ciattarelli cited the high COVID-19 death toll at nursing homes, a allegations of sexual harassment by a female volunteer on Murphy’s 2017 campaign, and what he characterized as the governor’s slow response to Ida, which killed 30 people in the state.
“If ever we needed a ‘get the hell off the beach’ moment, this was it,” Ciattarelli said, referring to comments made by former Gov. Chris Christie in 2011. Murphy declared a state of emergency at 10 p.m. the night of the storm, by which point a tornado had ravaged portions of South Jersey and much of the state was flooded.
While the rhetoric was sharp, neither candidate offered many details on how they would improve the state’s business climate.
Murphy pledged to not increase any taxes in his next four years as governor after successfully pursuing higher levies on millionaires and the state’s most profitable businesses. “We will not. I pledge not to raise taxes,” he said, adding in a huddle with reporters after the debate that “we’re done with raising taxes.” Murphy insisted that he was “not making news” with such a stance.
“We want to grow this economy, we want to address the inequities and that’s what we’re all about,” he said.
Ciattarelli, an Assemblyman who served three terms representing areas of Somerset County, likewise vowed that “there will be no new taxes” should he be elected. He pointed to some of the proposals on his website, like cutting the corporate tax rate in half over a five-year period and making the first $50,000 of revenue for businesses tax-free.
Murphy claimed that his administration had made the state more affordable. “If you’re a working-class family today, you’re paying lower income taxes, you’re paying less for childcare, you’re paying less for college, you’re not paying one cent more to ride NJ Transit,” Murphy said when asked how he would lower property taxes in the state.
Ciattarelli in turn promised to rein in state spending, pointing to a budget that’s climbed $11 billion over the past four years.
He criticized Murphy over his 2019 comments at a South Jersey event, where the governor suggested that for Garden State residents “if you are a one-issue voter and tax rate is your issue … we’re probably not your state.”
“This governor has raised every tax we have. He’s raised personal taxes, businesses taxes, property tax has gone up, on top of gas increases, toll increase, he borrowed $4.5 billion he didn’t need to,” Ciattarellli told reporters after the debate.
The gas tax, however, is going down this year, after fuel consumption rose steadily enough in the past 12 months.
Under a law former Gov. Chris Christie signed in 2016, the gas tax rate is tied to consumption: if consumption goes down, the tax goes up, and vice versa.
“He rubber-stamped Christie’s agenda at every step of the way,” Murphy said of Ciatarelli’s legislative record. “We inherited an overwhelming affordability crisis.”
Ciattarelli cautioned against Murphy’s clean energy goals, which Republicans and business groups have said could translate to higher costs for residents and businesses in their electric bills. “I do believe the governor’s energy policy is not realistic,” Ciattarelli said. “It’s too much, too soon, too fast.”
Murphy said that his clean energy goals, such as producing 7.5 gigawatts of offshore wind power by 2035 and total reliance on clean energy by 2050, were vital to avoid violent storms such as Ida brought about by climate change.
New Jersey Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 1 million voters and Murphy has a 13-point lead over Ciattarelli, according to a recent poll by Monmouth University. Despite wide approval for how Murphy is handling the pandemic, 82% of respondents said that the COVID-19 restrictions were still hurting small businesses in New Jersey.