It began with the sound and look of a pep rally.
Phil Murphy bounded onto the makeshift stage in the Rutgers University football stadium and enthusiastically gave shout outs to seemingly dozens of people – the lieutenant governor, legislative leaders. “Team Rutgers,” a handful of former governors and pandemic “first responders.”
This is typical Phil Murphy, and there’s nothing wrong with it, even if he seems to overdo this mutual admiration rite of politics just a bit.
He also struck a note that was both personal and meaningful. It all had to do with March 4. That was the day he had cancer surgery and also the day New Jersey saw its first case of COVID-19.
That was not all that long ago in real life, but considering what’s happened since, it certainly seems like a long time ago.
Since then, New Jersey has had about 190,000 cases, 14,000 deaths and not incidentally, the governor seems to have recovered quite well from his surgery. This was a moment that crystallized where the state – and the governor – have been.
And if you wanted to symbolize the crisis, the governor implored the audience to “look around this cavernous stadium.” He said four such stadiums would be needed to accommodate all those in the state who contracted the virus.
Then the nuts and bolts of the budget address began.
The governor is not a fiery orator and we saw that once again today. He tried at times to be passionate, but it didn’t really come across. What seemed a bit telling, and probably a bit disappointing, to Team Murphy was that there really wasn’t all that much hearty applause from what should have been a friendly audience – the mostly Democratic Legislature.
Summing up, the governor, in no particular order, concentrated on three main areas – the pandemic (naturally), accomplishments and future needs.
Starting in the middle, Murphy related some of the things of which he’s most proud. .
They include expanded paid family leave, a rising minimum wage, a plan to replace the ancient Portal Bridge, more “green energy” jobs on the horizon and “fixing” New Jersey Transit.
Much of this was achieved prior to the outbreak of the pandemic and that was kind of the point. Murphy wants to keep the progress going.
“I propose a new future,” he said at one point.
Part of that immediate future is maintaining the status quo. The governor said that even in these troubled times, his revised budget will maintain school and municipal aid at the levels announced back in February. Moreover, there is also money for a growing surplus and larger pension payments.
But for this to happen, revenue is needed.
“Washington can’t walk away from the American people,” he said.
The governor is on safe ground here. Few sensible people on either side of the aisle question the need for the feds to help out states in an emergency.
But then, he veered off into an old – and less accepted – proposal. The governor again wants to raise income taxes on millionaires. In earlier incarnations of this plan, the current top rate of 8.97 percent would have risen to 10.5 percent.
Democrats in the Legislature have been unconvinced of its need and it’s questionable if that will change.
Here’s Murphy’s argument: Draconian cuts are not good enough, and besides, they can hurt people.
Asking the very wealthy to pay a little more is akin to asking them to “sacrifice pennies.”
“We need to think beyond today,” he said. The governor also contended that the wealthy have handled the pandemic – financially speaking – much better than others. That’s a legitimate point, but we’ll have to wait to see if it’s a persuasive one.
But the governor also came back to the pandemic, which was why there was a second budget address in the first place.
“We are not through this crisis. This is not the time for complacency,” he said.
He also took time to thank the medical professionals fighting the virus and also millions of New Jersey residents for social distancing, wearing masks and in the beginning of it all, just staying home.
Of course, the governor was forced to admit that all New Jerseyans have not been 100 percent supportive.
“We have more than a few knuckleheads out there,” he said.