Gov. Phil Murphy seeks tax hikes, some cuts, more debt in $40B budget

TRENTON, New Jersey -- New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy proposed a nearly $40.1 billion budget, which slashes about $1 billion in spending but also calls for higher taxes on millionaires and $4 billion in new debt to close gaps stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Standing on a podium Tuesday at midfield at Rutgers' SHI Stadium in Piscataway to make social distancing easier than inside the confines of the statehouse, Murphy unveiled his second fiscal 2021 budget of the year.

The earlier, nearly $41 billion plan was scrapped because of the pandemic, which has killed more than 14,000 people in the state and resulted in about 190,000 positive cases.

Murphy recalled the earlier proposal with some nostalgia.

"There was no social distancing and not a face mask in sight. My how things have changed," he said.

Putting the fallout from coronavirus outbreak on par with the Civil War and Great Depression, Murphy proposed an unabashedly progressive spending plan.

"We are in a moment unlike any others, a moment from which we cannot shrink," he said.

The administration faces a nearly $5 billion shortfall in revenues compared with the earlier budget, Murphy projected.

To close the gap, the governor is proposing a number of changes.

Among them are higher tax rates on income over $1 million, from 8.97% to 10.75%. He's proposing making permanent a 2.5% increase on the state's business tax that was slated to expire in 2022. He wants to uncap a $20,000 cap on the sales tax charged on yachts, increase the tax on cigarettes from $2.70 a pack to $4.35 and boost a 3% tax on health insurance plans to 5%.

Among the cuts he's putting forward are estimated reductions in state Medicaid costs, though details are murky.

Murphy said he told his Cabinet to preserve as much of the services they provide as possible.

"The economic fallout from the pandemic is a reason to be smart about our finances - it is not an excuse to go backwards," he said.

On the spending side, K-12 school aid would be flat compared with last year at $8.7 billion. The public pension payment would rise to $4.9 billion from $3.7 billion.

Murphy also wants to put $2.2 billion into a surplus account, up from $1.7 billion.

The unusual August budget speech came as a result of the virus outbreak.

Murphy, a Democrat, and lawmakers agreed on legislation to extend the current fiscal year from June 30 to Sept. 30.

Murphy has long sought a so-called millionaires tax, but has been rebuffed by lawmakers.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, a fellow Democrat, didn't rule out any of the governor's proposals.

"It would be very irresponsible to say anything is off the table," he said in an interview.

Murphy only recently got the ability to take on more debt after winning a victory in an unprecedented case before the state Supreme Court. The state GOP challenged the governor over a recently enacted law that authorized him to borrow up to $9.9 billion.

Republicans balked at the budget, particularly the new debt.

"Thankfully, next November, New Jersey families get to make their decision, which they want most, Phil Murphy or their money," said GOP state chairman Doug Steinhardt.

GOP Assemblyman Hal Wirths and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick indicated the proposals were a nonstarter, though the GOP is in the minority in both houses of the Legislature.

Higher taxes could lead to an exodus from the state, Wirths said.

"We're going to need a wall to keep people in here," he said, alluding to President Donald Trump's proposed southern border wall.

The $4 billion Murphy wants to borrow is subject to approval by a legislative panel set up under the law.
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