Phil Murphy says he had his speech prepared, but then news got in the way. So, he called an audible.
And what began the governor’s State of the State address Tuesday was a harsh condemnation of one of Chris Christie’s favorite programs – tax breaks to help businesses. It’s true that Murphy never mentioned the former governor by name. That may have been because of his low-key, “I’m a nice guy” speaking style. After all, Murphy is one who likes to make corny jokes – OK, some are better than others – and who punctuated his speech by proclaiming “amen” and “yeah” multiple times.
But make no mistake. The first part of his speech was a condemnation of Christie incentive programs,. The former governor’s administration created a variety of programs to challenge the belief – especially prevalent among Republicans – that New Jersey is bad for business. Two of the most popular initiatives gave tax breaks to companies moving to New Jersey and to those who stayed here and created jobs.
Murphy ordered a review of the programs soon after taking office and a recent audit by the state comptroller determined that tax breaks were granted, but not many jobs created. Ouch.
In fact, the report said that during the Christie years, $8 billion in tax breaks were doled out with apparently little, or no, return to the state.
“This, simply put, is nuts,” the governor said.
Former governors often attend the State of the State, but Christie, who, of course, gave eight of these addresses, was not there to hear Murphy speak.
Murphy said he supports tax incentives to help business, but that they must do what they are supposed to do. And he asked lawmakers to help him put together a program that does just that. In a sweeping overview of what he has in mind, Murphy said, “Where there is greed, we will restore opportunity.”
With that mission accomplished, the governor went on with what seemed like the address he originally planned to give. As is customary with any governor, Murphy paid homage to average New Jersey citizens, praising their “unmatched decency.” But at the same time, he said they need help. And Murphy ticked off a series of first year accomplishments that he said were aimed to help them.
On the list were funding Planned Parenthood (Christie never did so), establishing paid sick leave, renewing a fight against climate change, respecting unions and expanding the medical marijuana program. Democrats in the Legislature endorsed all of these initiatives, so they had to be happy with what they heard.
He also took a few perfunctory jabs at the president in hailing the accomplishments of an Ethiopian immigrant now living in Jersey City and by saying establishing wind farms off the Jersey coast is preferable to drilling for oil there, as has been suggested by President Trump.
Then we came to goals for 2019, This was an ambitious list of liberal ideas that must have cheered progressives throughout the state. He talked about a $15 minimum wage, legalizing recreational pot, driver’s licenses for those here illegally and various voter-incentive ideas, including in-person early voting, and online registration.
Senate President Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Coughlin were customarily standing behind the governor and smiling. But given the fact the Legislature failed to enact a higher wage or legalize marijuana in 2018, you have to wonder what will change this year.
In TV commentary afterwards, Republican Kim Guadagno, who ran unsuccessfully against Murphy in 2017, noted that the governor said nothing about the state’s troubled pension system and virtually ignored property taxes, one of the state’s major issues. It was a partisan point, but also a pretty good one.
There is a budget address to come in about six weeks, so maybe the governor will speak about those issues then.
The governor seems more comfortable speaking about a “fairer” New Jersey and saying that social and economic progress must move forward simultaneously. It’s a line he uses a lot and something Murphy obviously believes.
Summing up the past, present and future of his administration, the governor said near the end of his speech, “Our vision has not wavered.”