A different State of the State, for a different year

Murphy breaks from tradition in socially distanced annual address that lays the foundation for his campaign for reelection
Credit: (Kirsten Luce/The New York Times via AP, Pool)
RN Maritza Beniquez of University Hospital, Newark (right), the first New Jerseyan to be vaccinated, was among those featured in Gov. Phil Murphy’s annual address Tuesday.

A nurse from Newark’s University Hospital, the first New Jerseyan to be vaccinated against COVID-19, fighting for her patients, colleagues and community. A Trenton teacher struggling with online schooling and personal loss. Small business owners describing how they adapted to the pandemic and their hope for the future.

In a break from tradition, Gov. Phil Murphy’s annual State of the State speech Tuesday began with videotaped messages from people outside of government who recalled the profound impact the coronavirus has had on their lives and work over the past 10 months. Different times called for a different kind of speech, the governor said.

But Murphy’s own 30-minute presentation — pre-recorded in an empty theater instead of delivered live before members of the Legislature, media and public — devoted limited time to his administration’s ongoing response to COVID-19, which has been detected in some 595,000 New Jerseyans, including at least 20,000 who have died. Murphy has covered these topics in some detail during regular media briefings now held three times a week.

Instead Murphy, a Democrat seeking reelection this year, used the annual speech to highlight how progressive policies he has implemented — like raising the minimum wage and protecting health-insurance coverage — helped the state survive the pandemic and prepare for the years to come. Murphy talked about how New Jersey residents came together to overcome these hardships and insisted better times lay ahead.

“Because of all we did together, here in New Jersey, 2021 can be the year where dreams are once again possible, and the wind is at our back,” Murphy said. “So, when we emerge from the darkness of the pandemic, together, we will be stronger, fairer, and more resilient than before, and we will be prepared to move forward as one state and one family.”

Response to COVID-19

Murphy spoke briefly about efforts to expand access to the COVID-19 vaccine, which was approved late last year and is now available at more than 200 sites to health care workers, law enforcement and emergency responders, and residents of long-term care and other congregate settings. As of Tuesday, nearly 244,000 New Jerseyans had been immunized, including 24,500 who have received both shots of the two-dose vaccines now approved.

“And, as our statewide vaccination program continues to grow, we will begin to see the light on the horizon get a little brighter,” Murphy said. “Be assured, we will get back to being able to gather and celebrate with our families and friends. We will be able to see all our children back in the schools they love. We will see our economy recover and flourish.”

Murphy talked about the state’s new business incentive program, investments in New Jersey Transit and law-enforcement reforms designed to promote equal justice and several health care initiatives that have been largely eclipsed by the coronavirus. These include the creation and launch of the state-run health-insurance exchange, Get Covered NJ, where those who aren’t covered through work and earn too much for Medicaid can receive government subsidies to help pay for commercial health-insurance policies.

The state has also continued its work to help families address opioid addiction and to improve maternal health outcomes, especially among women of color, who are at least four times more likely to die in childbirth than white women.

“We are determined to make New Jersey the safest place in the nation to deliver and raise a baby,” Murphy said.

Varied reactions

While New Jersey’s biggest health care stakeholders said little publicly about the speech, several business groups suggested Murphy should do more to help struggling small businesses, including hastening delivery of the coronavirus vaccine.

“We urge Gov. Murphy and the Legislature to make access to capital for business a top priority,” said Tom Bracken, president and CEO of the NJ Chamber of Commerce. “Equally important to an economic recovery is that we ‘turbo-charge’ our COVID-19 vaccination process while ensuring all safety measures remain in place.”

Murphy’s fellow Democrats who control the Legislature — and regularly disagree with the governor’s approach — also did not react publicly to his State of the State on Tuesday. New Jersey Democratic State Committee Chairman John Currie praised Murphy’s leadership and vision in a short statement.

But some Republican lawmakers raised concerns about how Murphy has handled the coronavirus crisis.

Senate Republican leader Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) criticized Murphy for what he called a lack of transparency in his decisions and urged him to seek more bipartisan solutions in the year to come. Others, including Sen. Kristin Corrado (R-Morris), chastised the governor over efforts to protect those at veterans and nursing homes, which account for roughly 40% of the state’s COVID-19 fatalities, and the pace of the vaccine rollout.

“There’s been no accountability for what happened. We’re lacking transparency. The governor has refused to release documents, refused to release the metrics that he uses in making many of these decisions,” Sen. Anthony Bucco (R-Morris) told NJ Spotlight News after the speech. “All of that plays a role in giving people hesitance as to whether or not we’re moving in the right direction.”