Gov. Phil Murphy highlighted an improving state economy, increased funding for public education and mass transit, and a new focus on climate change and gun violence as he reflected on his first year in office during a major speech in Atlantic City yesterday.
“We are moving New Jersey in the right direction and with the right focus,” Murphy said as he delivered the keynote address at the New Jersey State League of Municipalities’ annual convention.
But even as the Democratic governor bragged about his policy achievements and outlined goals that remain unmet, such as enacting a $15 minimum wage, he also took pride in saying he’s established “a new tone for our state” following the turbulent tenure of former Gov. Chris Christie.
“The name calling is in our past,” Murphy said. “I believe that we can accomplish more by having open and honest discussions — honest-to-goodness conversation — rather than simply lobbing missives at each other.”
A custom at the convention
The speech before local-government leaders in Atlantic City is an annual rite of passage for New Jersey governors, and this year marked Murphy’s first appearance at the convention as an elected official. Murphy addressed the mayors and town councilmembers last year as the governor-elect after easily winning the 2017 election.
Yesterday Murphy delivered his speech buoyed up by some favorable stats on the job he’s doing, including state unemployment figures released just before he arrived in Atlantic City that showed New Jersey’s jobless rate dropped last month to 4.1 percent, the lowest it’s been since 2001. The results of a new survey conducted by the Rutgers-Eagleton Poll revealed that for the first time in four years more New Jersey residents believe the state is headed in the right direction than believe it is going the wrong way.
Murphy focused on the economy, which has been one of his administration’s primary areas of emphasis, for several minutes during his half-hour speech, saying economic growth is “the ticket to our better future.”
“I got elected to fix our economy, and I spend most of my time doing that — or trying to do that — as governor,” Murphy said.
Promoting growth at local level
He went on to promote a host of new economic policies that were put forward during a speech in Nutley last month, including calls for a new emphasis on historic-site preservation, brownfields redevelopment, and other initiatives that are aimed at generating more economic growth at the local level.
“We know that spurring new job growth and smart development is not just good for our economy, it’s also our best point of attack against the property-tax menace,” Murphy said.
He also made the case for local officials to get behind his push to establish a $15 minimum wage, something that Democrats who control the state Legislature have yet to enact.
“Raising the wage will mean more money in their pockets to spend downtown, which will help keep our local economies strong,” Murphy said.
Avoiding affordable housing
But he largely avoided the issue of affordable housing, which has been one of the leading concerns of the state’s local officials as many of their towns have been forced to go to court in recent years over housing quotas after prolonged inaction in Trenton.
Turning to New Jersey Transit, Murphy also acknowledged that despite increasing state operating support the agency has been strained for much of the year as it has dealt with an engineer shortage, poor customer relations, and other operational problems. A push to make up ground with a positive train control safety initiative before an end of the year deadline set by the federal government has also presented a challenge.
“I know many of you have heard the same complaints I have from your commuting residents, and, yes, there have certainly been some impediments thrown on the tracks over the past year,” Murphy said. “But with new leadership, a new customer-minded focus and path forward, and a commitment for restored state assistance, I am confident we will get there. In fact, I promise you we will.”
Taking Trump to task
He repeated some concerns about President Donald Trump’s administration that were a hallmark of last year’s speech, including the lack of federal funding for important infrastructure projects like a new rail tunnel between New Jersey and New York. But he also said there is more reason for optimism this year because of the results of the midterm elections.
Democrats won enough seats last week to flip control of the House of Representatives, and in New Jersey they were able to pick up four of the five seats that had been controlled by the GOP.
“I am also looking forward to having new voices in Washington fighting alongside those that have been advocating for our state,” Murphy said.
Turning his attention to Trenton, Murphy said his administration was putting New Jersey “on an entirely different path” by emphasizing things like gender-pay equity, gun reform, and clean-energy production.
“We are undoing, bit by bit, the poor decisions of the past that were made in the name of political ambition and are replacing them with sound policies educated by listening and a desire to simply do the right thing,” Murphy said in another section of the speech that sounded like a rebuke of Christie’s tenure.
Afterward, Murphy drew praise from League of Municipalities executive director Michael Darcy for emphasizing a grassroots approach to governing New Jersey. Darcy also said the governor’s goal of further improving the state economy could bode well for local communities if he can deliver.
“When the economy does well, that gives you more options at a municipal-government level,” Darcy said.
Former Gov. Jim Florio, who also attended the event, said he has been impressed with Murphy’s ability to enact an ambitious policy agenda that has emphasized innovation, including the expansion of offshore wind.
“He’s doing a whole lot of things that are cutting edge and getting support for them, so that’s a good sign,” Florio said.
The former governor also credited Murphy for “talking to people like they’re adults” about thorny issues like infrastructure funding and transportation.
“They respect that and they’re willing to take on more difficult things,” Florio said.
Speaking to Murphy’s focus on the economy, Florio said maintaining a strong economy would make it easier for Murphy to navigate difficult issues that were left to him by Christie and other governors. They include the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system and the rising cost of worker healthcare benefits.
“Obviously it’s easier,” he said.