Murphy touts record on pension payments, higher ed, transportation — and celebrates diversity, arts

In fireside chat at Middlesex County Business Summit, governor offers snapshot of where state has traveled under his watch — and where he hopes to take it

Gov. Phil Murphy tried not to play the “what-if” game. He said he didn’t want to let his mind go to where the state would be had it been making its full pension payments for the past 25 years. The numbers, however, are the numbers.

That $7 billion payment the state has made in each of the past three years? It would have been closer to $1 billion, he said.

“Think about what we could have done with $6 billion,” he asked the crowd Tuesday at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center during the seventh annual Middlesex County Business Summit.

Murphy said it just goes to show what happens when you become irresponsible.

“When you kick the can down the road, and you don’t deal with the tough stuff in the here and now, you pay an enormous price,” he said.

Murphy said he doesn’t think about that. Instead, he said, he thinks about what he and the state can control.

Fixing the state, which he said was his mandate to do, was a three-legged stool:

  • Grow the economy: “We were stuck in this zero-sum game — that ‘I benefit at your expense’ mindset, year after year. Just grow the economy.”
  • Rapidly shrink inequities: “For as proud a progressive state as New Jersey is, we had and we continue to have … some of the biggest inequities, particularly across racial lines, of any American state.”
  • Reclaim the mantle of fiscal responsibility: “Being a state that does what it commits to doing.”

Is the state perfect? No. Even Murphy will admit that. But even those who say the budget is too high (a fair counterargument) must acknowledge Murphy’s economic vision has improved the state (the credit agencies certainly have).

“We’ve made meaningful progress on all three of those fronts,” Murphy said. “What’s more to come … more of the same.”

Murphy said he will spend his final two years in office just trying to raise the state’s reputation among ratings agencies — and other states.

“We wake up every morning trying to get better than we were the day before in New Jersey and, separately, trying to be better than any other Americans state in whatever it is we’re focused on,” he said.

Here’s more from the fireside chat (with comments edited for grammar and clarity):

  • On making a full pension payment: “I would expect that that will continue as long as I’m around. That is going to meaningfully move that needle.”
  • On ensuring the arts are not forgotten: “We are an innovation economy. We’re the quintessential STEM state, and I’m a recovering thespian myself. We don’t talk about the arts nearly as much as we should. And that’s not just because we should be saying STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) and not STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). New Jersey’s got as good a story on the arts to tell us any American state, and this gorgeous location is a great example.”
  • On Middlesex County government: “These folks wake up every day and run a tight ship. They’re obsessed with equity. This is one of the most diverse counties in America, not just in New Jersey. So, it’s also a county that’s not just stronger, but it’s fairer. It’s a model for us. I wish the things that we do in Trenton were as consistently at a high level of execution as they are here in Middlesex County.”
  • On life sciences in Middlesex County: “Look at Middlesex College. Look at Rutgers-New Brunswick — and the depth of the relationship between higher education and translational research and the real economy. Look at the HELIX that’s going up a few blocks from here; that’ll be a game-changer, not just for Middlesex, for Jersey, but nationally.”
  • On small business support: “Since the beginning of the pandemic, and I’m incredibly proud of this, we’re in the Top 3 states of small businesses support in America, and the Top 2, California and New York, are somewhere three or four times our size. Per capita, nobody can touch us.”
  • On effort to help community colleges: “In 2014 or ’15, McKinsey put out a playbook for what New Jersey needed to do, basically, to regain its momentum, regain its mojo, to reclaim its rightful place as America’s innovation economy. And, in that playbook, there was like a four- or five-step plan, and we’ve pursued all that, but, I think, in many respects, the most important was to invest heavily in our community colleges, and to make them far more affordable and accessible. And we’ve done both of those. And that’s a game-changer.”
  • On our diversity (and density) being a strength: “In New Jersey, we’re living on top of each other. And I mean that in a positive way. You cannot help but walk in the other guy’s shoes in New Jersey. You cannot help but understand cultural uniqueness, religious and worship uniqueness, the special contribution that diversity brings to the solid businesses of unity. It’s just overwhelming, and we are all better for it. I think it explains a lot about our tolerance in the state, about our attitude, about our willingness to embrace. We’re the ultimate immigrant state. And I think that that combination of diversity and density, especially here in Middlesex, feeds a lot into that.”
  • On New Jersey Transit: “We’ve had an incredible summer at MetLife (Stadium). I say that in the context that we’re in fierce negotiations with FIFA, trying to get the final of the men’s soccer World Cup in 2026. Keep your fingers crossed. But NJ Transit’s performance at MetLife for three consecutive Taylor (Swift) nights, three Bruce (Springsteen shows) to everything in between, Jets, Giants, has been impeccable — and that was not always the case. It is perfect. No, it is not perfect, but we have incredible momentum.”