Gov. Phil Murphy used his annual State of the State address to declare a new state of emergency in response to the omicron surge, so as to preserve many key powers needed to respond to the pandemic.
The Tuesday move was widely expected after a deal fell through that would have let the governor extend several of those powers for another 45 days. His order would have expired at 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 11.
Murphy assured that such a declaration “won’t bring any changes,” to people’s day-to-day lives–as opposed to the initial state of emergency from March 2020, when the governor enacted sweeping shutdowns of most businesses, as well as a stay-at-home order and ban on public gatherings, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is vital to ensuring our continued and coordinated response so we can move forward and put COVID behind us,” said Murphy, who will be sworn in for his second term on Jan. 18.
COVID-19 has surged to new record-highs, with most daily positive case counts topping more than 20,000, and the state having periodically broken past 30,000 daily cases in a single day. New Jersey’s hospitals are logging more than 6,000 patients, with expectations to hit more than 8,000 patients by mid-January.
Although more than 6.48 million people in New Jersey are fully vaccinated, and 2.44 million have gotten the booster, the omicron variant has shown signs of resistance to existing vaccines, despite the lower severity of cases.
The declaration will help the state get “critical testing supplies and vaccines” to “communities where they are needed the most,” the governor said. And it “protects the ability of our hospitals to care for the hundreds of New Jerseyans entering them because of COVID every day.”
“Even the knowledge that illness from Omicron can be less severe is of little solace, as these tremendous numbers of cases – even with the lower percentage chance of hospitalization that comes with them – mean that we have more people in our hospitals today than at any point since the spring of 2020,” the governor said.
No new restrictions
Hours before his annual address, Murphy sent out a separate video assuring that the emergency declaration would not mean new mandates, restrictions on business or gathering limits, “lockdowns” or “universal mandates or passports,” as opposed to the initial state of emergency in March 2020. At that time, the governor enacted sweeping shutdowns of most businesses, as well as a stay-at-home order and ban on public gatherings.
Hospitals will have to maintain stockpiles of personal protective equipment and report those to the state government. Retired health care workers can temporarily reenter the workforce to bolster staffing at hospitals and other medical facilities, and the state will continue to maintain its own database of residents’ COVID-19 vaccination status.
Face coverings will be required at all public, private and charter K-12 schools, as well as day care centers, while workers will need to get the COVID-19 vaccine or submit to routine testing.
Vaccinations or routine testing will also be required for workers at hospitals, medical offices, and other “high-risk” settings such as senior homes, veterans homes, prisons and jails, and psychiatric centers.
Individual municipalities and counties have enacted their own mandates – primarily mask requirements for public settings and businesses – and Newark has gone the added step of requiring a vaccine. Murphy has been widely supportive of this approach, saying it’s expected as the state moves away from large-scale COVID-19 restrictions.
No new taxes
Murphy used his annual address to assure that the first budget of his second term “won’t raise taxes.” But, he stood by several increases enacted during his time in office, like his oft-touted millionaire’s tax.
“New Jersey will never move forward if we cling to the outdated and selfish notion of, ‘I got mine and the rest be damned,’ ” he said.
Key to not raising taxes would be for the state to continue its proposed payments into the beleaguered pension system, which is underfunded by as much as $100 billion and became the source of a combined 11 credit downgrades over the past decade. The state’s current budget makes the full actuarially recommended pension payment for the first time in 25 years, something Murphy highlighted in his address as saving ”tomorrow’s taxpayers billions of dollars by living up to our obligation today.”
In November, the former Goldman Sachs executive narrowly clinched a second term in an unexpectedly close race against Republican former state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli. With the narrow victory, and Republican wins across the state, New Jersey’s GOP establishment charged that the Democratic majority had long-ignored the cost-of-living and lack of affordability in the Garden State.
“We must make New Jersey more affordable. It seems the majority party has heard that call,” said the new Assembly Republican Leader John DiMaio, R-23rd District, earlier in the day.
Senate Republican Leader Steven Oroho, R-24th District, argued the same, and Democratic leadership contend their party losses in the past election were due in part to dissatisfaction with the cost of living in the state.
But Murphy used his address to tout his track record over the past four years on affordability, business, the economy and cost of living.
“The reality is this – we’re making New Jersey the place where businesses want to locate and families want to live,” Murphy said. “The moving vans are driving into New Jersey.” An oft-mocked study by moving company United Van Lines has frequently listed New Jersey as the top state for customers to utilize moving services for relocation to a different state.
“And we’re making more progress against property taxes than any administration before us,” the governor continued. “Through the policies we’ve put in place, and the community investments we’ve made, our administration has slowed the rate of property tax growth more than any of the previous four administrations – a record that includes four of the lowest year-over-year increases in property taxes on record.”
Other figures have arguably made significant contributions in that endeavor: Republican Gov. Chris Christie in enacting a 2% cap on local tax increases and Democratic Gov. Brendan Bryne for enacting the income tax.
The business climate
Under Murphy, insurance rates have dropped while health care enrollment has surged, he said.
A plan to lower prescription drug costs will be in the works for lawmakers to consider, which will focus on a more “transparent” supply chain “so we can see what drives drug prices higher, and so we can lower them.” And The Hub in New Brunswick, a new redevelopment project, will serve as a staging ground where “doctors and researchers will work side-by-side on the next generation of lifesaving treatments.”
Offshore wind and the cannabis industries, Murphy said, are poised to boom these next few years.
And, according to the governor, The Innovation Evergreen Fund incentive program – where the state and private venture capital both jointly finance Garden State startups – “will get to work” this year.
An estimated $800 million in COVID-relief dollars have gone out to businesses during the pandemic in the form of grants, low-interest loans and loan guarantees for investments made during the pandemic.
Murphy touted the minimum wage increase – which will reach $15 an hour by 2024, compared to $8.65 when the governor took office – as a means to help New Jerseyans “reach up and pull themselves into the middle class.” And “14 middle-class tax cuts,” including a child and dependent care tax credit for families earning up to $150,000 a year, and a $500 rebate for nearly 700,000 families in the state.
And said NJ Transit has been able to avoid a fare increase during the past four years, while building up staffing of engineers and bus operators.
“This is exactly what stronger and fairer looks like. This is what creating opportunity looks like. This is what building an economy that works for every family looks like,” he said in his remarks.