Gov. Phil Murphy plans to make his state budget plans public on Tuesday. His original $40.9 billion spending plan that was proposed about six months ago would have raised taxes on high-income earners to fund education spending and pensions.
Because of the pandemic, the budget had to be revised due to revenue losses and the lack of commitment from the federal government regarding financial aid for the state. The new nine-month fiscal year begins Oct. 1.
“There are four levers we need to pull,” Murphy told reporters at his daily press briefing on Monday. “We need to tighten expenses, but at the same time, we need to put our money where our mouth is addressing inequities, and we need to raise revenues,” Murphy said. “Thirdly, we need to borrow money. Fourthly, we need direct federal cash assistance. We don’t have that fourth piece. We will do our job but we need Washington to do its job.”
At the briefing, Murphy introduced the co-chairs of his Restart and Recovery Commission, Shirley Tilghman and Kenneth Frazier. Tilghman, the former president of Princeton University, said the state has been successful battling COVID-19 because the administration’s decisions are driven by data and science. “The governor understands that we won’t have an economic recovery if we don’t have a health recovery,” Tilghman said. She also said state officials are focusing on the inequities the pandemic has exposed, both in terms of the higher rate of death and the economic impact on people of color.
Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli added that the state is working to remove barriers to COVID-19 testing and has scaled up testing, contact tracing, and quarantine resources in Atlantic City, for example. The state is identifying testing capacity and responding to gaps across New Jersey, she said. A subcommittee is looking at innovative practices from other states and countries. New Jersey officials plan to introduce a new digital app for contact tracing, Persichilli said.
A reporter asked Murphy and the heads of the recovery commission when the state can open up restaurants and gyms again and put people back to work, given the strong recovery metrics in the state and the fact that some other states in the region have reopened more indoor activities. Murphy said he would not marry himself to a date for reopening more indoor activities. “The regional thing doesn’t really work, at least on things like dining where you have a choice,” Murphy said. “It does work for education. It doesn’t work for something like indoor dining.”
Tilghman said she doesn’t think there is a single metric that is going to tell officials when it will be safe to restart more indoor activities in New Jersey. “I think all of us have been watching what is happening, not just in the rest of the country, but in the rest of the world,” she said, citing New Zealand, which went 100 days without a single COVID-19 case, but then had to revisit some restrictions because of people coming in across the border. “All of this is a reminder to us that the virus is still here,” Tilghman said. “It has not gone away.”
Tilghman also said she is concerned about universities and colleges restarting in person. “Frankly it’s the wrong demographic — 18 to 22-year-olds. Their prefrontal cortex is not fully developed, and I think we do have to worry to a certain extent,” she said.
Tilghman also said the weather will turn at some point and people will not be able to go outdoors like they can now. “That is a major risk. I don’t think there is a specific date, nor do I think there is a single metric. But I do think there are warning signs for us to be paying very close attention to,” she said.
Persichilli added that the state is still seeing outbreaks of COVID-19 among 18 to 24-year-olds who are hanging out together.
Murphy said he hopes to make an announcement soon about baby steps to get indoors more. “We want to get to yes, but we’ve got to do it right. The virus..it’s still among us.” he said. Murphy added that he wants to see the various COVID-19 numbers remain low for a sustained period of time before allowing indoor dining and a return to other indoor activities.
“We’re going to be digging out of this for a while,” Murphy said. “Anybody who thinks you can have 1.4 million people unemployed and flip a light switch, and think we can get back to normal, is not paying attention. Please God, there are obvious bridges over this troubled water that would allow folks to come through this if not wholly, more wholly, and the biggest one is to extend what had been a very successful (unemployment) top-up from the federal government.”