ATLANTIC CITY — New Jersey's Democratic lawmakers said Wednesday they got the message from voters "loud and clear" and will focus the remaining weeks of their current session on affordability, though it's unclear what that will look like.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin and state Sen. Troy Singleton, along with their Republican counterparts, spoke Wednesday at the annual League of Municipalities conference in Atlantic City during a panel discussion about the so-called lame duck period, which runs until the next session begins on Jan. 11.

It's a shift in message for Democrats and reflects a cornerstone of failed Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli's platform, which Republicans also ran on for Legislature seats, picking up at least four in the Assembly and one in the Senate.

"I think we have gotten the message loud and clear from voters that we need to make sure we hear. I think affordability is clearly one of the things that will be at the top of the discussion as we move through the next 54 days," Coughlin said.

New Jersey has among the highest property taxes in the country at more than $9,100 a year on average, as well as high corporate business tax rates -- though it's also gotten high marks for its schools and quality of life.

Singleton said he thinks residents are willing to pay a premium to live in the state but they want their tax dollars to be used efficiently.

"No matter what political stripe you wear, I think the electorate told us that affordability and also efficiency of government, (are questions) and things we need to be mindful of," he said.

It's not clear exactly how lawmakers will address affordability or exactly what they mean when they raise it, but Republican Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., who first raised the issue on Wednesday, suggested creating a state-level income tax deduction for charitable contributions, which the state currently lacks.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said he wants to see hearings on COVID-19 in the coming weeks. He said the public needs to be part of debates about masking requirements and other aspects of the Murphy administration's handling of the outbreak. He faulted the administration for debating only among its own members rather than publicly through hearings.

The panel discussion, a regular feature on the political calendar, came amid upheaval in the Democratic ranks after the loss of Senate President Steve Sweeney, who will be succeeded by state Sen. Nicholas Scutari in the new year. Sweeney typically speaks at the event, but was not there Wednesday, with Senate Democrats represented by Singleton.

The Democrats' reaction contrasted somewhat with what Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy, who narrowly won reelection over Ciattarelli. Murphy's acknowledged voters were hurting, though he also showed no inclination to scale back the progressive policies he's pursued in his first term, saying that he would "always, always, always keep moving forward."

Coughlin also hinted that Democrats should do a better job of promoting some of the measure they've implemented to address affordability. Lawmakers, for instance, pushed for and won a $500 tax rebate that was paid out this year.

Murphy has also pointed to the progressive policies that he's enacted as one way to address affordability. In his first term, he signed bills instituting paid sick leave, hiking the minimum wage, increasing state aid to schools, among others.

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