Gov. Phil Murphy and former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli clashed during an hour-long gubenatorial debate Oct. 12 at Rowan University – the second and last ahead of November’s election – but remained scant on details for the state’s business and economic climate.
Both candidates were prodded several times by moderators to answer the question being asked to them: Ciattarelli, for example, on what he would cut from the “bloated” state budget, and Murphy on the cost of his 2050 clean energy goals, and who would foot the bill.
“I was going to have a PowerPoint presentation,” the governor quipped to reporters immediately following the debate.
Ciattarelli came up short on data that would justify optional COVID-19 vaccinations or masking, while Murphy was light on why there hadn’t yet been a thorough state review of the state’s high nursing home death toll during the pandemic.
The Somerset County Republican went after Murphy for appearing maskless at the Garden State Equality indoor gala fundraiser in Asbury Park, a city in Monmouth County where COVID-19 cases are surging and where, according to federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, masks should be worn indoors.
Murphy countered that he had indeed worn a mask, but took it off when on stage as he and Ciattarelli were doing for the debate.
The election is 20 days away, and Ciattarelli lags significantly behind Murphy both in voter approval and name recognition.
Middling of the road
During the Tuesday evening event, Ciattarelli’s stances appeared more moderate on several topics where he had previously been criticized for swinging too far to the right, such as abortion issues and LGBT rights.
He went after the governor for a combined $11 billion increase to the state budget, vowing to cut $10 billion from that budget and to reduce property taxes through an overhaul to the state’s school funding formula.
“We will all sit down together, tighten the belt and find places to cut,” Ciattarelli said, calling the state government “bloated, inefficient, and corrupted by special interest,” despite not saying what he would cut.
Murphy argued that spending increases were vital in order to fix the “complete and utter mess” of the state’s finances, saying to Ciattarelli, “you were there for six years before I was,” referencing the candidate’s time in the Legislature.
“We’re paying our bills,” Murphy continued, pointing to the $6.4 billion payment his administration made into the state pension—the first time since the 1990s that New Jersey has met its full actuarially recommended amount.
The state’s massively underfunded public worker pension dragged the state’s credit rating down a combined 11 times in the past decade across Moody’s, Fitch and S&P.
Stubbornly high joblessness
Ciattarelli panned New Jersey’s unemployment benefits as too generous, which he said combined with the $300 in weekly federal relief and the state’s eviction moratorium were disincentivizing people to return to work.
The weekly $300 ended six weeks ago, and many business owners say they’re still having trouble recouping their workforce.
“People don’t want a handout, they want a hand-up,” Ciattarelli said later in the debate.
“That is offensive,” the governor responded. “That’s another example of forward-backward. A handout? Come on, man.”
Murphy acknowledged that while the state’s unemployment rate is indeed high – 7.2% as of August and over 7% since the spring – programs like the state-subsidized $500 back-to-work bonus and $10,000 of training wages should be enough to turn the tides.
Business owners interviewed by NJBIZ said they have low expectations that the incentives will actually help. But more than 2,500 businesses have shown interest in the program, according to Murphy, which is capped at $10 million.
‘Eating our lunch’
While on the campaign trail, Ciattarelli has vowed to “declare economic warfare on our neighbors” and “build a better business environment” in the state.
He proposed making the first $50,000 of business income tax-free and slashing the corporate tax rate in half over the next five years.
“Our neighboring states are eating our lunch because New Jersey has not made itself regionally competitive,” he said in September.
Murphy in turn has called New Jersey a “good value for money state,” arguing that the higher taxes residents and businesses tend to pay in turn gets them a high-quality K-12 and higher education system, and access to the New York City and Philadelphia job markets, as well as some of the nation’s largest transportation hubs.
During the candidates’ first meeting on Sept. 28 at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, Murphy made a pledge to not raise taxes if he is reelected.
Ciattarelli on Tuesday cited an oft-mocked study by moving company United Van Lines that has in numerous reports listed New Jersey as the top state for customers to utilize moving services for relocating to a different state. “Businesses are moving out, Nabisco moved out,” he said.
Ciattarelli was pressed on the fact that it was just a single survey from a moving company, but insisted that “even if it’s small, it still says that more people leave this state than any other.”
U.S. Census data released in April defied any such narrative of outmigration, showing that the state population grew from nearly 8.8 million in 2010 to more than 9.2 million in 2020.
In recent weeks Murphy has scored a number of business: a $109 million tax break for fintech giant Fiserv to create or retain a combined 3,000 jobs in the state; the attraction of Princeton-based SOSV’s $50 million HAX accelerator to Newark, planned for next year; and a $9.9 million tax break for Party City to consolidate several regional offices into one space in Woodcliff Lake.
After the debate, Ciattarelli contended with reporters that the state was still “picking winners and losers,” and that it instead needs a “tax policy that appeals to all businesses.”
In a June interview with NJBIZ, Ciattarelli had looked at phasing out some of the state’s “unfair” $14.5 billion dollar incentive programs.
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