New Jersey's State of the State: Teen voting, more AI, lower medical debt among Murphy's pitches
Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday announced a series of new measures he wants the newly expanded Democrat-led Legislature to adopt, including allowing 16-year-olds to vote in school board elections, reducing medical debt, expanding affordable housing and launching an artificial intelligence “moonshot."
Murphy delivered his sixth state of the state address before a joint legislative session in the ornate Assembly chamber where Democrats picked up six seats in the November election. Murphy also reiterated calls he's made since his reelection in 2021 to further ease property taxes and expand free pre-K, among the measures that he says make the state “stronger and fairer.”
“From day 1, the vision has been to grow New Jersey from the bottom up and the middle out,” Murphy said.
The annual speech kicks off the legislative year and will be followed in a few weeks by the governor's budget address, where he'll specify how he wants lawmakers to allot the state's income for the year.
The two-term governor concentrated heavily on his and fellow Democrats’ efforts to help rein in property taxes, among the highest in the country, all part of an effort that Murphy said makes the state “the best place anywhere to raise a family.”
Republicans, who are in the minority in the Legislature, said they would work with the governor to make the state more affordable, but balked at many of his specific proposals. Taxes are still too high, they said, despite the governor's focus on affordability.
“Our tax burden is still the highest in the nation, and the tax hurdles we put in front of the businesses are still the highest in the nation,” said Republican Sen. Declan O'Scanlon.
Murphy's newest proposals include a call for letting 16- and 17-year-olds vote in school board elections. A handful of towns and cities around the country, including California, Maryland and Vermont have similar allowances, according to the National Youth Rights Association.
“Encouraging our young neighbors to engage with democracy is really about encouraging them to become lifelong voters,” he said.
In an emotional highpoint, Murphy's voice quavered as he said he would name a package of bills to reduce medical debt after Louisa Carman, a 25-year-old member of his staff who was killed in a car accident on New Year's Day.
“In the wealthiest nation in the world, nobody should have to worry about being able to afford critical health care services or a lifesaving medical procedure,” he said.
The state has long struggled with how to enforce affordable housing requirements, currently being managed through the courts. He called on legislators to send him a bill to make it easier to build such housing, though it’s unclear exactly what that measure would look like.
He also called on the state’s “top minds” to pioneer artificial intelligence technology, and laid out a kind of welcome mat for firms working on AI.
“Our state government will be a catalyst for bringing together innovators and leaders to invest in research and development,” he said.
A left-leaning former financial executive, Murphy came into office contrasting himself with his predecessor, Republican Chris Christie, who is in the midst of his second run for the GOP nomination for president.
Murphy has steered the state in a different direction: Where Christie clashed with labor leaders, Murphy on Tuesday hailed the state's expanded unionized workforce. Christie vetoed funding for abortion services, which Murphy has restored — and the list goes on.
Murphy has signed gun control bills into law, and touted them in his speech Tuesday, highlighting the state's record drop in gun deaths. He's signed into law tax hikes on the wealthy, overseen the establishment of a recreational marijuana industry, and signed a bill to enact a $15 an hour minimum wage, which took effect this year.
While Murphy delivered on a number of campaign promises, thanks in large part to Democrats who control the Legislature, a 2023 vow to rewrite the state's Prohibition-era liquor license system remains unfulfilled.
Murphy also did not mention the state's involvement in taking over the Paterson police department or give an update on a promise to close the state's women's prison, which the governor said last year was partially underway.