By Nikita Biryukov | New Jersey Monitor
In his penultimate State of the State address on Tuesday, Gov. Phil Murphy pledged to retool the state’s affordable housing system, ax out-of-pocket costs for abortion, and expand a medical debt relief program created by last year’s budget.
Murphy, a Democrat who first took office in 2018, pledged to expand on his party’s affordability push and recommitted himself to the state’s renewable energy goals despite their recent headwinds.
“There is our task, today: to meet these hard times by working even harder, to make life more affordable for more families,” Murphy said.
Though the governor’s address is slim on details, his goals for affordable housing are clear.
He’s backing a bill that would sunset the defunct Council on Affordable Housing, restrict lawsuits against towns to force real estate development, and leave dispute resolution in the courts’ hands. Lawmakers had intended to pass that bill in the legislative session that ended Monday, but senators stalled those efforts by holding the bill to provide more time for discussion.
“Our shared vision is simple: Ensuring that everyone raising a family in New Jersey has a safe, affordable place to call home,” Murphy said.
The governor touted Democrats’ action on abortion and contraception, highlighting a bill signed last January that will allow pharmacies to sell contraceptives over the counter starting this year. He said the state should go further, urging lawmakers to approve a bill that would bar all out-of-pocket costs for abortion procedures.
“If lawmakers in states like Florida and Texas think they can rip away rights from our fellow citizens, we’ve got news for them: not in the Garden State,” Murphy said. “New Jersey will always be a safe haven for reproductive freedom. Period.”
Murphy said legislators should pass the abortion bill before the summer, when the Legislature typically takes a recess after passing the state budget.
Though affordability played some part in the governor’s address, it appeared more obliquely than it has in past years.
He said the state should expand a medical debt relief program created by the current fiscal year’s budget. That $10 million program allows Medical Debt Resolution Inc., a state-partnered nonprofit, to buy residents’ medical debt in much the same way a debt collector would.
As the program exists today, residents whose household income is no more than 400% of the area’s median income are eligible for relief under the program so long as they hold medical debt equal to at least 5% of their individual income.
“For every dollar invested, we can retire up to $100 in debt — for tens of thousands of people,” the governor said.
He also urged the passage of a separate measure that would require medical bills to be transparent and itemized, asking that the law be named after Louisa Carman, a staffer in the Office of Health Care Affordability and Transparency who died in a car crash earlier this month.
He also appeared to commit to funding StayNJ, a recently approved tax relief program that is expected to cost the state more than $1 billion each year. StayNJ seeks to halve seniors’ property taxes, to a cap of $6,500, beginning in 2026.
“We are going to provide even more relief, with programs like StayNJ, so more grandparents can stay close to their kids and their grandkids,” Murphy said.
The governor’s wide-ranging speech also devoted significant time to artificial intelligence, with Murphy arguing that New Jersey must take the lead on AI or allow other nations and states to lay claim to the field.
“Here is how I see it: the future of generative AI has yet to be written. And New Jersey can be the author,” he said. “This is not just an economic opportunity for our families — it is, frankly, an imperative, because if we do not take the lead on AI, I guarantee you: someone else will.”
Murphy provided little detail about what the state’s AI efforts might look like, though he suggested the state would look to connect investors with AI experts, adding that work could be used in medical fields and in education.
He reiterated his support for same-day voter registration, a top goal for state voting rights activists that has been stymied by a lack of support from legislative leaders.
“Nobody should ever be denied access to the ballot box because they missed a deadline or forgot to send in paperwork,” the governor said.
It’s not clear Murphy’s support will do much to shift the Legislature away from its opposition to same-day registration. In prior sessions, some incumbents have opposed same-day registration because it would make it more difficult for candidates to understand the full scope of their electorate.
Murphy backed legislation that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local school board races. Newark’s City Council is set to vote on a similar proposal Wednesday evening.
The governor also teased a new clemency initiative, though he provided scant detail about what it might entail. To date, Murphy has not issued any pardons. In New Jersey, clemency powers are vested solely with the governor, though the State Parole Board can make clemency recommendations.
Murphy reiterated his commitment to ambitious renewable energy goals set by the state’s master plan, which would see New Jersey draw all of its power from renewable sources by 2035.
Murphy’s renewable energy platform has taken a drubbing in recent months. In November, Danish wind giant Ørsted pulled out of two wind farms off of New Jersey’s coast whose state subsidies had become a prime target for Republican campaigns. Atlantic Shores, a second wind developer, in July said it too would need more financial assistance to keep its project afloat.
Republican legislative leaders blasted the governor’s speech as full of “applause lines” that distracted from the key issue in New Jersey — affordability.
“Unemployment is going up. Costs are skyrocketing. Taxes are too high. Spending is way too high,” said Assemblyman John DiMaio, his chamber’s minority leader. “We’re focused on people’s survival and affordability, and things that really matter.”
Abortion rights and anything else unrelated to affordability is “an absolute garbage red herring issue,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, the Senate’s GOP budget officer. He mocked Murphy’s claims that New Jersey has become more affordable.
“The governor talked about affordability,” O’Scanlon said. “New Jersey is the single most unaffordable state in the nation. Now, if we improve on that marginally, I guess you could pound your chest and say that’s a wonderful thing. But our affordability situation still sucks. We are still the highest-tax state in the nation.”
Such unaffordability continues to fuel the “brain drain” of high school and college graduates who can’t afford housing here and the exodus of older New Jerseyans who feel similarly squeezed by a rising cost of living that outpaces their salary raises, DiMaio said.
He laid blame partially on overregulation, such as a bill lawmakers just passed this week that would require builders to install sprinkler systems in new townhomes. Republicans had opposed the bill as an unnecessary burden that would drive up home prices.
Murphy and other New Jersey Democrats also “squandered” opportunities in the past seven years “to get our fiscal house in order,” O’Scanlon said, adding that New Jersey is hurtling toward a fiscal cliff.
“Our budget deficit, our structural deficit, is the same or greater than it was seven years ago,” O’Scanlon said. “We’ve been able to coast for these past seven years on federal largesse, billions and billions of dollars that will go away soon.”