TRENTON —You’ll probably not be surprised to hear that Gov. Phil Murphy in his first State of the State declared New Jersey to be stronger and fairer one year into his governorship.

That’s hardly the case, say Republicans who expressed disappointment but not surprise that Murphy didn’t call for fiscal reforms of state government in his 55-minute speech.

“If you ask many New Jerseyans if they believe we have a state that is fairer or stronger than just a year ago, I think you’ll find the answer actually to be ‘no,’” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union.

Murphy ticked through a series of changes from the past year – more preschool funding, tuition-free community college, higher taxes on income over $5 million, Planned Parenthood funding, an equal-pay law and paid sick leave.

“We are who said we would be – and we did what we said we would do,” Murphy said.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said nothing Murphy said in his speech addresses the lack of affordability that compels residents to move out of New Jersey.

“Gov. Murphy has a really big heart. We just don’t have the wallet to match his heart,” said Bramnick.

The look-back portion of Murphy’s speech blended into the look-ahead part, as he again urged lawmakers to finish work on two unresolved priorities: legalization of recreational marijuana and a $15 minimum wage.

He said “great progress” was made over the last several days on the minimum wage issue in talks with legislative leaders.

“I appreciate the progress we have made, and I know that working together, we will get this done,” Murphy said.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, agreed that “we’ve come miles” toward reaching a compromise on the minimum wage and credited Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, for that.

Murphy's goals for 2019

Murphy added a few priorities to the 2019 agenda, including another round of gun-control bills.

“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,” Murphy said.

The governor also called for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, giving people on parole or probation the right to vote and doing more to modernize New Jersey’s aging water infrastructure.

“More than 1.5 million residents – north, central, south, rural and urban – are currently serviced by water with elevated lead levels,” Murphy said, raising an issue that got bipartisan applause.

Murphy talked about NJ Transit but didn’t offer specific promises for the year ahead such as a date for restoring service sidelined for months, such as the entire Atlantic City Line.

Murphy says after a year devoted primarily to installing crash-avoidance technology required by Congress, NJ Transit’s focus for 2019 will be on improving customer communications, service and reliability.

“In my budget address six weeks from now, I’ll 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,” he said.

The first third of Murphy’s speech was devoted to last week’s state comptroller audit of New Jersey’s tax incentive programs, as the governor used it to pitch the Legislature on his economic plan and its limited, targeted tax breaks.

It didn’t take one-third of the speech’s time, though, as it was rarely interrupted by applause, even from Murphy’s follow Democrats.

Murphy's state of the state 2019

“The comptroller verified one of our worst suspicions – that in the most egregious cases, past business incentives got turned into crony capitalism,” said Murphy, who said the current system “spectacularly failed.”

Murphy said next fiscal year, tax breaks approved in the past will cost the state budget $1 billion.

“To those who bemoan our inability to pay for even the most basic items in our budget, let me say that this, simply put, is nuts,” Murphy said.

Tom Bracken, president of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, called that assessment “a little harsh” and that the Economic Development Authority has helped encourage job growth.

“Is it perfect? No. Were there some problems? I’m sure. But it’s an economic factor in New Jersey that’s been very positive for the state overall,” Bracken said.

“We’re trying to build this state and the economy and attract companies,” he said. “If we start to beat up one of the best economic tools we’ve had and the people who played a positive role in that, that’s not going to help that effort.”

The current incentive programs expire this summer. Murphy prefers smaller, targeted tax breaks. He said the comptroller’s audit shows New Jersey did not implement a serious, strategic plan for creating jobs.

“The audit revealed bad policy badly run. A program more likely to have been drawn up in a smoke-filled back room than created for New Jersey’s future,” Murphy said.

Pointing to a multitude of projects in Camden, many South Jersey Democrats say such tax incentives are important and shouldn’t be bad-mouthed.

Sweeney said nothing in the comptroller’s audit said the tax incentive laws were bad and that the problem was enforcement within the Economic Development Authority.

“We have to look within where things went wrong, but to say the programs that we did were bad, I just don’t agree,” Sweeney said. “But I believe there’s room for improvement.”

New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at

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