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Murphy’s first State of State Address Comes at Pivotal Time for NJ and for Him

Hopes were high among progressives when governor came into office, but tension between him and fellow Democrats has impeded his agenda

Phil Murphy
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/NJ Governor's Office

Gov. Phil Murphy is set to deliver his first State of the State address today and in many ways it could not be coming at a more pivotal time for his administration.

When Murphy, a Democrat, took office this time last year, there were high expectations that legislative leaders from his own party would be able to act swiftly with him to enact a host of top priorities, including a $15 minimum wage and legalized marijuana.

But action on those and a host of other progressive agenda items has been bogged down by disagreements between Murphy and the legislative leaders, fueling some concern among his liberal base about his leadership ability and the outlook for the remainder of his tenure.

It also remains to be seen how closely Democratic lawmakers will work with Murphy this year to rein in controversial state tax-incentive programs whose overhaul is a key element of the governor’s broader vision for a reignited state economy.

While no excerpts were released ahead of the 2 p.m. address, a senior administration official said yesterday that Murphy is expected to use the speech as an opportunity to talk more about the minimum wage, the future of the tax incentives and the state’s overall fiscal health, among other issues.

Liberals look for more action

Yesterday in Trenton, several liberal groups offered up their own “People’s State of the State,” in which they highlighted issues like climate change and providing voting rights for those who are incarcerated, on parole or probation as needing more action and urgency from the governor and lawmakers.

“We have all in one way or another been deeply disappointed by the lack of progress that we’ve made in the last year, even as other states have made major steps in the direction that we were supposed to lead,” said Ryan Haygood, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Today’s address also comes as lawmakers are in the midst of investigating the actions of several top Murphy administration officials after a high-ranking staffer claimed in October that another top official had raped her during the governor’s 2017 campaign. It’s unclear how big an impact the ongoing legislative review will have on the administration’s ability to advance major policy goals in 2019.

Phil Murphy
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/Governor's Office
Gov. Phil Murphy at St. James AME Church, Newark in December, 2018

Murphy took somewhat of a victory lap in late December. While speaking to the congregants of Newark’s St. James AME Church he cited new gun reforms, toughened state gender pay-equity regulations and increased funding for public education among the successes of his first year in office.

But moderate Democrats in the Legislature led by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) are pressing the governor to consider a series of proposals that were put forward last year by a group of fiscal-policy experts to ease building pressure on the state’s strained budget. A big issue that will have to be confronted, the experts warned, is the growing cost of public-employee pensions and other worker benefits.

Sweeney: ‘dire financial crisis’

While Murphy has so far resisted those calls for reform and has instead put the focus on the need for more economic growth, Sweeney said in an opinion piece published last week by The Asbury Park Press that the state is already in a “dire fiscal crisis.”

“We cannot wait any longer to restore fiscal sanity, enhance our economic competitiveness and make New Jersey more affordable for all of our residents,” Sweeney wrote.

New Jersey Republicans are also sounding the alarm about the economy and the direction the state is headed after the first full year of Murphy’s governorship. They are highlighting the impact they believe a series of tax hikes that were enacted last year as part of Murphy’s first state budget are having on the state.

“Businesses and jobs are leaving the state at alarming rates because the governor’s ultra-liberal policies make New Jersey the most inhospitable state in the country in which to live and work,” said state GOP chairman Doug Steinhardt. “Murphy promised a stronger and fairer New Jersey, but his policies make us weaker and poorer.”

Will governor be more aggressive?

Against this backdrop, Murphy will deliver what will be his third major address in Trenton, following last year’s inaugural address and the budget speech for fiscal 2019. (Last year the State of the State was delivered by former GOP Gov. Chris Christie just before he left office.)

In Murphy’s prior speeches, he adopted a largely optimistic tone as he urged lawmakers to work with him to enact major policy goals that had been routinely blocked by Christie during his eight years in office. It remains to be seen whether Murphy will take a more aggressive approach during today’s speech as he’s now facing resistance from members of his own party.

Asked yesterday what lawmakers should expect to hear today, Dan Bryan, the governor’s press secretary, said that Murphy is “looking forward to delivering his first State of the State address” and to “framing the successes of his Administration’s first year and laying out an ambitious vision for the year ahead.”

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