by Nikita Biryukov, New Jersey Monitor
Gov. Phil Murphy said he would seek to reform the state’s liquor licensing system and invest in New Jersey’s boardwalks during his fifth State of the State address Thursday.
Murphy’s speech focused more heavily on New Jersey’s business climate than speeches in past years, and progressive policy proposals that helped build the Democrats’ base made scant appearance.
During the annual speech, delivered to an audience of legislators, former governors, and a host of other prominent New Jersey politicos, the governor said he would also seek to push through legislation to increase penalties for car thieves and touted growth in New Jersey’s nascent film industry.
“With the close of 2022, we ended our fifth year of partnership to make New Jersey the stronger, fairer state we know it must be to support our future ambitions,” Murphy said. “And as we start 2023 and embark on year six of our journey together, the state of our state is just that: We are stronger, and we are fairer. We are moving confidently in the right direction, forward.”
The governor called the state’s existing liquor licensing system — one in which licenses are rare, expensive, and out of reach for many — a post-Prohibition relic that had persisted long past its time.
“There’s no other way to put it — our liquor licensing regime is antiquated and confusing,” he said. “We rely on a foundation of rules written in the days immediately after Prohibition to govern a 21st Century economy. That makes no sense.”
In an unusual step, the governor provided details on his vision for the reforms, saying the state would look to make more licenses available by loosening rules that limit localities to one license per 3,000 residents before eliminating those limits altogether.
He said existing license holders, who often paid hundreds of thousands of dollars or more for the ability to sell alcohol, would receive a tax credit to defray the impact of a less restricted licensing regime.
The governor did not say how large a tax credit he was seeking, nor did he give a timeline for the move to a new system.
Murphy also backed removing existing restrictions on breweries, distilleries, and wineries. Brewers and vintners have chaffed at rules imposed by the Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control that barred them from serving food and limited how many events they could hold each year, among other restrictions.
“People from all across the northeast, and indeed from across the country, are coming to taste what is being poured from bottles, taps, and barrels across New Jersey,” he said. “They are coming to enjoy one of the best and most diverse restaurant scenes of any state. It is absolutely imperative that we keep this renaissance going.”
The governor called on lawmakers to advance legislation to combat rising car thefts he announced in November. Those proposals would raise penalties for car thieves and impose restrictions on some tools used in auto thefts.
“If you send these bills to my desk, I will enthusiastically sign them,” he said.
Auto thefts, and crime overall, have increasingly become a focal point for some Trenton Democrats whose constituents have been affected or who view the issue as a political vulnerability in advance of this year’s legislative elections.
Murphy, a two-term Democrat, said he would also seek to start a fund to invest in upgrades to New Jersey’s boardwalks, though the size and scope of that proposal remained unclear.
“Our boardwalks are more than just places for recreation and exercise. They are more than just the space that connects a parking area to the beach,” the governor said. “They are wooden Main Streets which, in so many ways, define their communities and support their economies as much as the sand and surf.”
The governor lauded improving economic conditions in New Jersey, noting the state’s 3.4% unemployment rate had fallen to pre-pandemic levels and touting growth in the state’s marijuana and film sectors.
The state has sought to draw film and television studios to New Jersey through tax credits that can range as high as $100 million. Streaming behemoth Netflix has announced it will create a major production studio in Fort Monmouth.
“The motion picture industry was born in New Jersey. Fort Lee was Hollywood before there even was a Hollywood,” he said. “Like so much else, what past generations and prior politicians let get away from New Jersey, we are bringing back.”
The governor also announced a free naloxone program that will allow anyone aged 14 or older to anonymously obtain a two-dose nasal spray of opioid overdose reversal drug.
Though Murphy touted some policy accomplishments made in the last year, including the launch of the ANCHOR property tax rebate program and the launch of wind energy manufacturing in New Jersey, he made no calls for policies sought by progressives that have made up the core of his base since he entered office in 2018.
The governor said the application window for ANCHOR awards would be extended through February 28. The state was set to stop accepting applications after Jan. 31.
He also celebrated recently enacted legislation that imposed broad limits on where gun owners could carry concealed firearms. Portions of that bill, which also increased fees associated with gun ownership, have already been temporarily blocked.