Gov. Phil Murphy used his third annual State of the State address on Jan. 12 to criticize what he described as the “old Trenton playbook” of “broken politics” that handicapped the state’s early response to the COVID-19 pandemic and exacerbated the ensuing economic pain felt by many residents and businesses.
His stance echoes the tone he’s adopted in previous addresses and in his 2017 election campaign in which he promoted himself as an outsider taking on well-entrenched special interests. “We stand with New Jersey’s hardworking middle-class families and everyone working to get there,” the governor said in his 4,337-word address. “We haven’t sugar-coated our problems and we haven’t followed the old Trenton playbook of kicking them down the road for someone else to deal with.”
Murphy broadcast his pre-recorded speech from the Patriots Theater at the Trenton War Memorial, rather than in-person before a packed Assembly chamber to allow for social distancing amid the COVID-19 second wave.
“[S]ome in New Jersey are suggesting the same old failed policies of decades past,” the governor added, citing his predecessor whom he’s frequently criticized, Republican Gov. Chris Christie. “They forget that, after the last economic downturn, the prior administration cut taxes for millionaires, cut vital programs, left middle and working-class residents behind, and, as a result, we had the slowest recovery of any state in the nation. Our long-standing inequities have never been felt more sharply than during the past ten months.”
During his 2020 address, the governor called out “well-connected and entrenched special interests,” with a particular focus on the since-overhauled corporate tax break program. And Murphy’s 2019 address was much the same, where he argued the tax break program was “designed to reward the well-connected,” leading to a “failed status quo and a broken system.” That speech came on the heels of a state audit that found lax oversight from the New Jersey Economic Development Authority of the tax break program, known as Grow New Jersey, and spotty compliance.
But the governor approved a $14.5 billion tax incentive program, which sailed through the Statehouse in less than a week, drawing the ire of open government advocates. Murphy said on Tuesday that the new program will not “go back to economic policies that put the wealthy and the well-connected first,” nor would it “lean on the broken politics that put special interests first.”
The governor, lawmakers, business executives and advocates said that the incentive program is vital in order to kickstart the state’s post-COVID economy as the vaccine rollout is ramped up and business restrictions are gradually rolled back.
“The old ways worked for too few and left too many behind,” he said. “So we set out to create a new system that is transparent and fair, which focuses not on huge corporations, but on job-creating small businesses and innovative startups. A system that, most of all, promotes good-paying, future-focused jobs. A system that has sensible caps in spending and an inspector general to safeguard every penny of taxpayer money.”
The state’s 2021 budget, which topped $40 billion and covers expenses through June 30, includes several social service and support programs, which Murphy said counter the spending cuts he accused Christie of instituting in the wake of the Great Recession.
“To blunt them, we must accept the fact that we can’t grow and strengthen the middle class by pulling the rug out from under it — and that we can’t cut and slash our way to growth and opportunity,” the governor said. “We’re proving that the best way to beat COVID is by leaning in to smart investments and forward-looking, principled ideas. There is no excuse for doing less or leaving more behind.”
On NJ Transit, Murphy said the state was able to complete “eleven years’ worth of work in less than three” by installing the federally mandated emergency braking system across the rail operator’s statewide grid ahead of the Dec. 31, 2020 deadline.
State transportation officials under Christie moved slowly on the installation of the braking system, known as positive train control.
Murphy also touted the addition of dozens of new locomotive engineers, meant to prevent the train delays that have plagued much of Christie’s and Murphy’s terms.
A renewed federal focus on the construction of the Gateway tunnel under the Hudson River once President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week, is bound to bolster the state’s economic recovery, the governor said on Tuesday.
And an exploding offshore wind industry — including the South Jersey Window Port and a $250 million offshore wind manufacturing hub in Paulsboro — will also boost the economy, Murphy said. “The clean energy economy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. So, we’re bringing together stakeholders to assess our needs and develop a robust and equitable green jobs workforce development strategy.”
Marijuana legalization made a brief cameo during the annual address, with Murphy acknowledging that the legislation hasn’t “happened as quickly as I would have liked.”
“Together, with the Legislature, we are on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis,” he said. “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.”