Yet, I am worried — we should all be worried — that my story, and the story of so many, seems further and further out of reach. The opportunities that could be earned by hard work, a good education, and playing by the rules are not there today as they were when I was growing up.
Today would have been the 90th birthday of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His gospel of love and sharing common ground still inspires. Dr. King famously said, “We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.”
Our wealth gap shows how far we have to go. According to research from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the median net worth of the average white family in New Jersey stands at $271,000. For Latino families it is $7,000. And, it is just $5,900 for African-American families. That is a startling statistic we must address.
But, the struggles of poverty and income know no color. Look no further than the 2018 ALICE study done by the United Way of Northern New Jersey — more than one-third of all New Jersey households, encompassing all ages and races, in every county, still can’t earn enough to afford basic needs. The fact that many of these households are headed by someone working full time, including at more than one job, shows us the need for action.
The working poor of New Jersey are no longer invisible. We see them.
Their needs point to our need for a new approach that reaches deep into every community and puts growing and sustaining a thriving middle-class before anything, or anyone, else.
It’s really this simple – as governor, I’m fighting to give every child and every family in New Jersey the same opportunities I had growing up in a tight-knit, working-class family, and I won’t stop fighting until they do.
Those who have been left out must be lifted up. Those who work hard must have their effort repaid. And those who are doing well should see a path to doing better.
Changing this mindset has been our Administration’s charge for the past 364 days.
Overcoming these economic disparities begins by ensuring equal opportunity to a good job. Last year, from the time I took office through November 2018, our economy created 50,000 new private-sector jobs. Our unemployment rate is at its lowest level since 2001. And, we saw the creation of more than 100 new apprenticeship programs that hired more than 2,000 new apprentices and issued over 1,000 industry-recognized certificates of completion, giving more of our residents a strong start to a good career.
To prepare our kids for a better future, we invested hundreds of millions of dollars in our schools and pre-K. Now, 4,000 more three- and four-year-olds are attending a high-quality pre-K program. And, starting this semester, 13,000 worthy students are attending community college tuition-free.
We were able to make these investments by asking those with incomes over $5 million to pay a little more, and by ensuring a more equitable distribution of school aid. We are proving that investment in our kids is also an investment in middle-class tax relief. To help our property taxpayers, we are also taking steps to promote common sense shared services.
We met our pension obligation and, working in partnership with our public employees, we reached an agreement that will save state and local taxpayers half-a-billion dollars in health care costs over two years.
These advancements are taking some of the weight off the shoulders of our property taxpayers. In 2018, New Jersey saw the lowest increase in statewide average property taxes on record.
We know we have much more to do to crack the back of our property tax burden – including working with our federal delegation to reinstate the SALT deduction. But, it’s a start.
While some in Washington continue their assault on our health care, we protected health care for hundreds of thousands of residents, by restoring funding for Planned Parenthood and women’s health care, enacting paid sick leave protections for 1.2 million residents who couldn’t take a day off, and safeguarding the Affordable Care Act — an effort that resulted in a more than nine percent reduction in premiums on the individual market.
We put $100 million into fighting our opioid crisis, and have dedicated these resources to better strategic use, through access to treatment and recovery, careful data compilation and analytics, and helping law enforcement keep fentanyl out of our communities.
The stark reality is that we have far to go. Over 3,000 lives were senselessly lost last year. But we are putting ourselves in a better position to attack this epidemic head-on.
We are emerging as a global leader in offshore wind energy, where each dollar of investment will return nearly double to our economy, and where we are working to create thousands of good-paying new, union jobs. The Board of Public Utilities recently closed the first solicitation for potential partners in building an 1,100-megawatt wind farm off our coast — enough energy to power half-a-million homes and businesses.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that realizing our offshore wind-energy potential is much smarter than drilling for oil off the Jersey Shore.
We opened up our democratic process through the nation’s broadest Automatic Voter Registration law, and through reforms to our vote-by-mail law that helped fuel the highest statewide midterm voter turnout in a generation.
We stood up for our DREAMers — young immigrants who are just as American as our four kids — by finally giving them access to in-state college tuition assistance programs.
One of these students, Gloria Rodriguez, from Orange, is now attending Bloomfield College, where she is a member of the honors college. She’s studying to become a special education teacher. Gloria represents the promise and spirit of our DREAMers, and is with us today — I cannot wait to see her achieve her dream.
And, we’re investing in NJ TRANSIT to make the system work again for the nearly one million New Jerseyans who depend upon it every day. There is still much to do, but I am committed to making NJ TRANSIT the turnaround story of New Jersey.
When our Administration took office, passenger safety was not a priority, and work on meeting the federal government’s December 31, 2018 Positive Train Control requirement — nearly nine years after Congress mandated it — was just 12 percent complete. No one thought we would make it, but, in eleven months, we met the federal requirement.
There is still more to be done to have this system fully operational by the end of 2020, but our commitment — and the hard work of NJ TRANSIT’s employees — sends a strong signal to commuters that we are listening to them and working hard to get things right at every level.
This year, NJ TRANSIT’s full focus will be on improving customer communications, service, and reliability. Four classes of new rail engineers will graduate, joining newly hired bus operators. And, in my budget address six weeks from now, I will outline additional investments to continue improving NJ TRANSIT service by hiring even more engineers to fill staff shortages and get our trains running on time.
Fixing NJ TRANSIT is the right kind of business incentive.
Our focus on improving operations and instilling a customer-based mindset is changing the culture within NJ TRANSIT. And, our bipartisan reform to NJ TRANSIT’s operations is sending the message to customers that NJ TRANSIT now works for them, and not the other way around.
We’re not done yet, but we will get there.
All of this progress was made possible through the 169 new laws we enacted together in our first year, more than any first-year administration in over two decades. In addition, I signed more than four dozen executive orders, advancing our priorities of job creation, environmental protection, equal rights, and fair pay.
I am eager to build on this progress together with Senate President Sweeney, Speaker Coughlin, and each of you. There is still much to do. And, no one is blind to the challenges that remain.
So, let’s start 2019 by finishing what we began in 2018 — putting the minimum wage on a clear and responsible path to $15 an hour, and legalizing adult-use marijuana. We must remember that when we talk about policy we are talking about people, not politics.
Our minimum wage workers got a 25-cent per hour increase on January 1 — a scant $10 more on a 40-hour work week. That’s completely inadequate.
Working together with the Senate President and Speaker, we have made great progress over the past several days on final legislation to raise our minimum wage. I appreciate the progress we have made and I know, working together, we will get this done.
A $15 dollar an hour minimum wage will give more than one million families a stronger foothold in the middle class, and allow those who aspire to enter the middle class the means to do so. The people this will help are the same people all of us rely on – maintenance workers, child-care workers and home health aides, security guards, and many more.
Doing so will allow us to invest more in education, in infrastructure, and in other critical needs. A higher minimum wage strengthens all of New Jersey.
And, it will also strengthen our businesses. Talk with Ron Rivers, the owner of Love2Brew, a successful homebrewing supply company in North Brunswick. Ron pays his employees a starting wage of $15 per hour because he knows better pay gets him better employees who serve the customer better.
Ron is here today, and I thank him for setting an example for others to follow.
By legalizing adult-use marijuana – first and foremost – we can reverse the inequality and unfairness left from years of failed drug policies and shift public safety resources to where they can do the most good. We must ensure that those with a past mark on their records because of a low-level offense can have that stain removed, so they can move forward to get a stable job or an education.
But, it will also allow us to broadly benefit from creating an entirely new and legal industry, much as we did last year with sports betting. We are learning from the states that went before us on what not to do, but we are also seeing the positive economic impacts. Massachusetts’ new industry is creating an estimated 19,000 new jobs. And, in Colorado, legalization fostered an industry that has an annual statewide economic impact measured at $2.4 billion, with 18,000 new jobs created in research, agriculture, processing, and retail.
We can do that here, and in a smart way that ensures fairness and equity for minority-owned businesses and minority communities.
Last year, we enacted seven new common-sense gun safety laws which returned us to our rightful place as a national leader. Let’s take additional steps this year to close remaining loopholes — to make it easier for prosecutors and police to keep illegal guns off our streets, regulate and track ammunition sales, and assist community-based organizations in implementing coordinated, evidence-based, violence-intervention strategies. Let’s work together to get this done.
Our collective conscience has been moved by Parkland and Pittsburgh, but we have acted because of people like Hessie Williams of Jersey City, who channeled the grief of losing her own son to gun violence to organize A Mother’s Pain, which brings together other mothers who have also lost children to gun violence for mutual support – and to support non-violence efforts in their community.
Hessie is with us today, and I ask that she stand and be recognized for all she is doing to stop the scourge of gun violence.
Let us use this year to also turn our attention to our aging water infrastructure. More than 1.5 million residents – north, central, and south, rural and urban – are currently serviced by water with elevated lead levels. We must leverage every opportunity to build a modern water infrastructure network that ensures the delivery of clean water to every child, and every family.
We have inherited water infrastructure that is, in some places, a century old, if not older. Some of Newark’s water lines were installed in the 1880s. Mayor Ras Baraka has been on the frontlines of this, and I applaud him and his team for their work to protect Newark’s residents.
Outdated infrastructure is a national problem, and it requires a federal solution. I will continue working with our Congressional delegation to press the federal government for greater support and assistance — whether it pertains to clean water, or getting the Gateway Tunnel built.
Let’s open the doors to our democracy even wider. Let’s work together to allow residents to register to vote online and at the polls on Election Day. Let’s enact true early, in-person voting for our residents. Let’s allow 17-year olds to register and vote in our June primaries if they will turn 18 by the November general election.
Let’s restore voting rights for individuals on probation or parole, so we can further their reentry into society by allowing them to exercise the most sacred right offered by our society — the right to vote.
And, let’s work together to allow all residents — regardless of status — to obtain a valid New Jersey driver’s license. Twelve states, as varied as Delaware and Utah, plus the District of Columbia, have already done so. All they’ve seen is an increase in the number of licensed and insured drivers, safer roads, and lower auto insurance premiums. Let’s do the same here.
One year into our work, our vision for how to move New Jersey forward has not wavered. We have stayed true to our values and true to those we serve.
We are who said we would be – and we did what we said we would do.
It comes down to this — you can’t have economic progress without social progress, and you can’t have social progress without economic progress. That’s where this journey is taking us – to a New Jersey that is both strong and fair.
It’s not one or the other. It’s both. I was not sent here to continue peddling the false choices of the past. I was sent here to build a brighter future for our people and change our state for the better.
I look forward to working with you – and with Senate President Sweeney and Speaker Coughlin and their teams and across the aisle – to build a state that leads for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. The state others point to and say, “that’s what the future looks like.”
It’s a state with an economy that isn’t content to be equal with our peers in terms of creating jobs or raising wages, but which leads the pack.
It’s a state where the light bulb first flickered on, the transistor age started, and medical miracles were born that now has a strategic economic vision for growth, and reclaims our mantle as the world’s home for innovation.
It’s a state where young people from across our nation will want to come to start their careers, where they can find good jobs, affordable housing, and diverse and inclusive communities.
It’s a state where young families can grow and prosper.
A state that redefines public education for our nation, with access to a free education from pre-K all the way to an Associate’s degree.
A state where our higher education system and the real economy are connected, where good jobs can sustain middle-class dreams.
A state where our seniors can retire safe in the knowledge that someone is looking out for them so they won’t have to leave for elsewhere.
It’s a state where we shrink the economic inequities that have stubbornly persisted, where poverty is meaningfully reduced, and the playing field is level.
It’s a state that doesn’t just provide a good value, but thrives through living its strong values.
It’s the New Jersey we should be — the New Jersey, that together, we can be.
As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “the future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
My energy and optimism for the job ahead are boundless. They are shared by the residents I have met along this journey. I know we can make this vision a reality.
This is my charge as governor. This must be our charge as a state.
Thank you. May God continue to bless the great people and state of New Jersey, and the United States of America.