Gas prices are skyrocketing. The war in Ukraine has turned the stock market upside down. And, months before the midterm elections, voters in New Jersey’s major suburban swing districts are unsettled, contributing to heightened dissatisfaction with the state’s Democratic leader, Governor Philip D. Murphy.
For much of his first term, Mr. Murphy reigned as a steadfast liberal eager to talk about his successful efforts to protect abortion rights, legalize marijuana and enact tougher gun laws.
But on Tuesday, in his first budget speech since winning reelection by just three percentage points in a state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, Mr. Murphy a radically tempered message.
The sweeping liberal rhetoric that defined his first budget speech has been replaced by a recalibrated definition of progress and a promise to make New Jersey — where the cost of living is among the highest in the nation — a more affordable place to live.
Months after the remnants of Hurricane Ida paralyzed large areas of the state, killing at least 25 people, he didn’t utter the phrase “climate change.” There were no overt references to criminal law, racial equality, or immigrant rights. He mentioned a landmark first-term win — raising the minimum wage to $15 — just once, opting instead to talk about tax cuts and rebates and a one-year “reimbursement vacation” that would allow residents to visit state parks and driving licenses can renew for free.
“When you compare last year’s really sharp reports on racial justice with this year, there’s a really big gap,” said Sara Cullinane, executive director of Make the Road New Jersey, a left-wing coalition focused on the rights of immigrants and immigrants. employees.
“Looks like there’s a pivot,” she added.
Instead of the unabashedly left-wing budget message he released in 2018 that set the tone for his first term in office, there were 24 mentions of the words “affordable” or “affordability.”
“The Democratic Party looks down on the coming midterms of 2022 and knows its message needs to be refreshed,” said Ashley Koning, director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University.
“Many voters, probably most voters, are disappointed.”
Mr. Murphy is slated to transition from vice president to president of the National Governors Association in July and take over the leadership of the Democratic Governors Association for a second time next year. Democrats must defend governorships in the key battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, races seen as must-wins to stave off Republican attacks on voting rights.
The governor has made it clear that he heard the message that voters sent in November in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republican turnout soared and Democrats lost seven seats in the legislature, including the Senate president.
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“Frankly,” said Professor Koning, “they are not interested in hearing about climate change and racial justice.”
Democrats worry that the same factors that contributed to Murphy’s reelection by narrower-than-expected margins — pandemic fatigue, rising costs and President Biden’s declining popularity — could also cause problems during November’s midterm congressional elections.
Just before Mr. Murphy gave Tuesday’s speech, the Eagleton Center released a poll that showed the number of voters favorable to the governor had fallen to 33 percent, from 50 percent in November. More than 40 percent of those surveyed gave them insufficient grades related to New Jersey’s high property taxes and cost of living.
During his first term in office, Mr. Murphy achieved many of his most ambitious policy goals: adding a tax on income of more than $1 million; legalizing adult marijuana; establishing paid sick leave for employees; and giving undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses.
He talked about the millionaire tax, but didn’t mention the other wins, only referring to the “many steps we’ve taken together over the past four years,” before focusing on property taxes.
“This budget is attacking two of New Jersey’s toughest and most intractable problems: property taxes and affordable housing,” Mr. Murphy told a joint legislature, in a clear shift from comments he made in 2019, including minimized concerns about high taxes from the state.
“If you’re a one-time voter and the tax rate is your problem, a family or a business — if that’s the only basis on which you’re going to make a decision,” said Mr. Murphy three years ago, “We’re probably not your state.”
This year’s budget proposal — a record $48.9 billion in spending — appeared to be no different from the priorities Murphy set during his first term in office and would continue to fund programs important to Mr. Murphy.
The plan, which the legislature must approve in July, will set aside more money for education, mental health programs, health care for children of undocumented immigrants, substance abuse treatment and cheaper housing. For the second year, Mr. Murphy proposed making a full payment to the state’s underfunded state pension system.
Just as he did in his first budget speech, Mr. Murphy quoted Irish playwright Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic – one who knows ‘the price of everything and the value of nothing’. But that’s where the parallels end.
Gone was the fiery rhetoric of 2018, when he spoke of the state’s high poverty rate, income inequality and the importance of embracing “the immediacy of the problems ahead”.
There was no renewed mention of initiatives to narrow the state’s racial income gap using tools such as so-called baby bonds, an ultimately failed budget proposal he made in 2020 to give most newborns $1,000, with interest to be paid when they turn 18. .
Instead, a plan to set aside money to build 3,300 cheaper homes was portrayed as a victory for the working class, not the working poor.
“Let’s not lose sight of who actually benefits from building more affordable housing,” Mr Murphy said of units available to people on low to middle incomes. “It is the educator or first responder who can finally live in the community they serve. It is also the server at the local restaurant, the cashier at the supermarket.”
Julia Sass Rubin, a professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University, said the speech marked a change in reporting, but not a “major withdrawal” from Mr. Murphy’s left-leaning priorities.
“If you keep walking the walk, they might think they can adjust the conversation a little bit, without changing direction substantially,” said Professor Rubin.
“It’s a way of trying to figure out what could be a vulnerability — both for the midterm elections and for Democrats in general,” he said. she added.
Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican challenger to Mr. Murphy, who was close to removing the governor, said the budget speech showed that Mr. he has been tone deaf.”
But the substance of the plan, he said, was “same old, same old.”
“There’s never been a better opportunity to completely reshape the way we do property taxes,” said Mr. Ciatarelli, who plans to run for governor again in four years.
Officials with left-wing advocacy groups said they found things they liked in the budget design, as well as missed opportunities.
Ms. Cullinane of Make the Road praised the approximately $100 million the governor set aside for undocumented immigrants and working families who were ineligible for federal pandemic-related aid.
Andrea McChristian, director of law and policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, praised Mr. Murphy to increase access to college and to fund a pilot program designed to keep minors out of prison. But she questioned the lack of any discussion about closing youth incarcerations, paying reparations to black residents harmed by slavery, or renewed push to introduce baby bonds.
“That is definitely a missed moment”, said Mrs. McChristian.
The lack of emphasis on social justice is particularly concerning, said Ms. McChristian, in a year when New Jersey is full of cash from tax collections, income generated by the robust housing and stock markets and federal stimulus funds.
“Now is the time to be bold,” she said, adding, “We have huge racial differences here.”
Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey, called it a “status quo” budget that continues to provide essential support for offshore wind, but does not take other meaningful steps to tackle the climate crisis or provide a guaranteed source of funding for public transit.
“New Jersey should invest in climate change solutions,” said Mr. O’Malley, “and not fight this battle with one hand behind its back.”