Liquor, taxes, guns: Lots of questions after NJ’s State of the State for ‘Ask Governor Murphy’


“Ask Governor Murphy” — your chance to present questions to New Jersey’s governor live and on-air — returns at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 11.

After Tuesday’s State of the State address, we’ve got plenty of questions of our own.

Listen Live on WNYC, or at

What will you ask Governor Murphy?

The show is an hour long, and we may not get to all of these, but here are some of the questions on our minds:

Rethinking liquor

The governor is proposing a major overhaul of how New Jersey licenses bars and restaurants that serve alcohol – one that could have a radical impact on some downtown economies, depending on how it’s rolled out.

Currently, New Jersey restricts the number of liquor licenses a municipality can award — one per 3,000 residents. In communities with well-established downtowns – say, a Hoboken or Morristown – liquor licenses become hot commodities, as entrepreneurs sell them to one another. They can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, sometimes even well over $1 million.

Murphy says that’s an antiquated system that harkens back to prohibition and hurts businesses. He’s proposing a “gradual” elimination of the cap. The governor’s office sent Gothamist a one-sheet breakdown Tuesday that fills in some details not addressed during the State of the State.

The governor’s office says it would phase out the population cap over five years, taking the number down by 10% each year — so one license per 2,700 people in the first year — before eliminating it completely.

After that, no resale of licenses would be allowed. New licenses would be issued at “progressive prices,” with associated fees based on a business’s size.

Murphy says municipalities will retain control – that new licenses will still be issued through local authorities, and local towns will be able to assess their own fees to bolster revenue.

Dana Lancellotti, president of the NJ Restaurant and Hospitality Association, says the state would be better off focusing on 1,000 unused existing licenses than adding more to the marketplace. She’s worried about the impact on those existing license holders: “Adding more licenses to the marketplace will have a negative impact on these small businesses that have contributed so much to their communities over the years.”

We still have plenty of questions. Murphy says existing license holders will be offered tax credits, but how much, and at what cost to taxpayers? We want to know if he can get the industry on board, how he’d restaurants and bars to apply for licenses during the transition, and what legislators he’s working with.

Murphy also said he sought to remove “outdated” licensing and operating restrictions on craft breweries, distilleries and wineries — half a year after the New Jersey Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control began enforcing restrictions on how many events the businesses can hold, and preventing them from working with food trucks and similar vendors to offer food.

He’s proposing a new kind of license for those types of businesses, without those limits.

There have already been lawmakers pushing for similar measures, answering calls from breweries that say the restrictions have devastated them as they try to recover from the pandemic. We’ll want to know if Murphy is getting on board with an existing proposal, or if he’s built up a consensus with legislators already working on the issue.

ANCHOR rebates

In the news business, there’s an expression: Don’t bury the lead. It means talking about what’s important up front. Murphy certainly seemed to be thinking the same as his address got rolling, focusing on affordability and tax help — for instance, state investments in education the governor stressed translate to property tax relief at the local level.

And he heralded his administration’s ANCHOR property tax rebate program, which could bring a household making $125,000 and paying a statewide average of $9,300 in property taxes $1,500 in a rebate — if the household applies.

But state officials say only a little more than half of the 2 million qualifying New Jersey residents have applied so far — and so Murphy announced the state’s second extension of the program’s deadline, now moved from Jan. 31 to Feb. 28.

But with applications lagging, what else will the state do to get this $2 billion program back on track? How will it ensure that money actually makes it into residents’ hands?

Republican state Sen. Steve Oroho and Assemblyman John DiMaio, in the official Republican response, also said money should be getting to applicants much faster – within 30 days (it’s slated to be distributed in the spring). And they said the state shouldn’t be relying on one-off gimmicks to give taxpayers relief, but instead move toward what they describe as a fairer tax code.

It’s unlikely Murphy and the Republicans will see eye to eye on what a fairer tax code looks like. But to their other point: What happens when ANCHOR is a distant memory and New Jersey taxes remain notoriously high?

Racial justice

Murphy discussed among his priorities environmental justice initiatives to help communities of color, the ways his liquor license initiative might help Black and brown small business owners, and the growth of New Jersey’s cannabis industry, which he said is “making room for women and minority small business owners.”

And the New Jersey Monitor noted this week most federal funds that the state budget left at Murphy’s discretion have boosted aid to immigrants living in the country without authorization, or others shut out of federal COVID aid.

But little of his address discussed new investments in racial justice l, and the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice noticed.

“For the third year in a row, the Governor’s State Address minimized the urgency to pass the much-needed racial justice and progressive reforms that were a promise at the start of his term,” the alliance wrote in a press statement Tuesday.

It asked the governor to invest in language access, election reforms, data disaggregation to better represent the diversity of communities and criminal justice reforms that “abandon the outdated and often dangerous idea that safer communities can only exist alongside harsher punishments.”

The alliance stressed some optimism it could work with state leaders as the FY 2024 budget cycle gets underway.

So what commitments will Murphy make to racial justice in this year, and in what’s left of his second term?

Dealing with auto thefts

Murphy talked up an expansion of the State Police’s Auto Theft Task Force to disrupt car theft rings, and how his attorney general revised police pursuit policies to permit the pursuit of stolen vehicles – something the attorney general’s predecessors discouraged, concerned about the potential for injuries and deaths in chases.

Murphy also said a $10 million investment in automated license plate technology was helping bring thefts down – 13% year over year, in the last quarter of 2022.

He’s backing a legislative proposal to increase penalties tied to car thefts, meant to discourage serial auto thieves. But it would, in some car crime cases, roll back bail reform members Democrats celebrated just a few years ago – rules that require prosecutors show someone is a flight risk. How will that go over with groups often in Murphy’s corner, like the ACLU? There’s bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition, with worries about impacts on people of color.

How does Murphy answer the criticism this package of laws could hurt some of the same communities he’s vowed to protect?

Also on our radar

Murphy mentioned “carefully crafted laws that keep guns out of our most vulnerable places.” We may also ask if he’s worried about the future of those laws, after a temporary restraining order barred the state from enforcing key provisions. We want to know what the “boardwalk fund” he briefly mentioned would cost, and how it’ll help Shore towns.

And Murphy spoke about NJ’s business climate – noting, for instance, Netflix plans a $1 billion production hub at the site of the former Fort Monmouth. The New Jersey Business Administration applauds that investment, but says its survey shows 82% of participating businesses say New Jersey is either somewhat unaffordable or not affordable at all for business, citing a heavy tax burden. So what’s ahead to make the state more palatable for investment?

“Ask Governor Murphy” is a production of WBGO in Newark, in partnership with WNYC and WHYY. The show is hosted by WNYC Senior Reporter Nancy Solomon.


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