COVID, economy dominate governor’s annual State of the State address

No new taxes and an end to partisanship are among familiar promises

By: - January 11, 2022 6:48 pm

Gov. Phil Murphy delivers his State of the State address on Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022. (Photo courtesy of New Jersey governor’s office)

If you tuned in late to Gov. Phil Murphy’s State of the State speech Tuesday night, you might have thought you were watching one of his periodic coronavirus briefings.

That’s because the governor spent the first eight minutes of his annual address defending his decision, announced earlier Tuesday, to reinstate a public health emergency in New Jersey.

He trotted out many of the same talking points regular listeners of his COVID-19 briefings would find familiar: urging people to get vaccines and boosters, thanking frontline workers, and commiserating with anyone annoyed by how the pandemic has altered everyday life.

“We’re all frustrated by this pandemic. We’re all tired of it getting in the way of everything we do. We’re all ready to get on with our lives,” Murphy said. “And I am committed to seeing us get there.”

The governor, a Democrat who won a second term in November, had lifted the public health emergency last June. But the highly contagious omicron variant sparked a steep surge in cases, driving Murphy to take what he called the “necessary step” of redeclaring the public health emergency. He made the call after lawmakers declined to approve extending some of his emergency powers.

“We are seeing new case counts that dwarf anything we’d seen to this point. Upwards of four times as many New Jerseyans have COVID today than did one year ago,” Murphy said. “Thirty thousand new cases a day. More new cases day-to-day than even at the pandemic’s start.”

Murphy then moved on to New Jersey residents’ favorite gripe: taxes.

The governor promised he would not raise taxes when he presents his proposed state budget in seven weeks. He bragged about job gains and business expansions that have helped the economy recover from its pandemic-inflicted tailspin.

He touched on recent victories for which New Jersey has been lauded by progressives and reformers, including “protecting the fundamental right to reproductive freedom” and “securing the dignity of our LGBTQIA+ communities.” Murphy just this week signed a law codifying same-sex marriage, and said he will soon sign a bill legislators passed Monday to protect abortion rights in New Jersey. He has until Jan. 18 to sign bills recently passed by legislators.

“These decisions must be kept between a woman and her doctor, period,” Murphy said of the abortion bill. “I am especially proud that we are getting this done before the United States Supreme Court renders its ruling challenging Roe v. Wade, which it is poised to overturn.”

In his 40-minute address, Murphy occasionally painted a rosier picture of New Jersey’s outlook than reality shows.

“We’re making New Jersey the place where businesses want to locate and families want to live. The Census counts it in black-and-white – while some states in our region lost population, New Jersey grew. The moving vans are driving into New Jersey,” Murphy said.

Yet the Census estimates show that while New Jersey gained a million residents over the previous decade, the state lost nearly 13,000 residents from July 2020 to July 2021. Only seven other states had more residents flee.

Further, New Jersey’s unemployment rate is 6.6%, among the worst in the nation.

Murphy credited the state’s “best-in-the-nation public education system and world-class colleges and universities (that) turn out the best-trained and best-educated workforce in America. Businesses that come here do so because they know we have a nearly bottomless well of talent from which they can draw.”

But state officials have long lamented the “brain drain” of about 20,000 college graduates who leave New Jersey annually to live and work in other states. And public education advocates say inequities persist, and many students of color remain deprived of the resources they need to succeed.

Murphy also highlighted several 2021 successes, like New Jersey’s rising minimum wage, expanded access to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone to reduce overdose deaths, and a new program giving low- and moderate-income students free tuition at the state’s community colleges.

He wrapped up his address with an indirect nod to the narrow margin with which he won his second term as governor. Murphy won with 51% of the vote against Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli’s 48%. Murphy will officially be sworn in for his second term on Jan. 18.

Tuesday, Murphy vowed “to seek, in the words of John F. Kennedy, ‘not the Republican answer or the Democratic answer, but the right answer.’”

“From today forward, for all of us, the politicking ends and the governing begins,” he said.

Reaction varied

The speech had barely begun before criticism began rolling in from state Republican officials unhappy with his public health emergency declaration. Bob Hugin, chair of the New Jersey Republican Party, called the action “a stunning act of continuing government overreach.”

Assembly Minority Leader John DiMaio (R-Warren) and Assemblywoman Nancy Muñoz (R-Union) gave the official GOP response to the State of the State address. DiMaio called Murphy’s characterization of the state a “fairy tale.”

“He really painted a rosy picture. He could paint Picassos,” DiMaio said.

He pointed to overwhelming demand for — and a short supply of — vaccine tests as an example. And while the minimum wage has risen, “it’s been eaten up by inflation,” DiMaio added.

Muñoz disputed Murphy’s claim that New Jersey has become more affordable.

“What the last election showed us loud and clear was that the people of New Jersey care about affordability. They feel it’s not affordable. The public is unhappy about the ability to live here, to stay here, and to raise their families here,” Muñoz said.

Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin (D-Middlesex) applauded the governor’s comments.

“In the Assembly, we share the governor’s vision to build on the progress we’ve made moving New Jersey forward these past four years,” Coughlin said. “Recommitting ourselves to lifting up our working middle-class families, making New Jersey more affordable, and ensuring access to opportunity, we stand ready to advance an agenda that puts emphasis on the daily challenges people in our state are facing.”

New Jersey Business & Industry Association President and CEO Michele Siekerka cheered Murphy’s vow to not raise taxes — but said that promise doesn’t go far enough.

“We need structural reforms that will lead to property tax relief,” Siekerka said. “We have the highest corporate tax rate and highest property taxes in the nation. Our income tax rates are among the highest, as well. This is a unique opportunity for our state to provide tax relief across the board so residents have more money in their pockets, so startups can launch here and so corporations can grow here.”


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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.