When it comes to statewide elections, New Jersey is a reliably blue state.  The current governor, the State Senate president and the Assembly Speaker are all Democrats. So are its two U.S. senators and 10 of the 12 members of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

And while Governor Phil Murphy is favored to win reelection next week, he’s facing some daunting history in the state. A Democratic governor  hasn't won re-election in New Jersey since 1977.  And Murphy might have fallen on the third rail of New Jersey politics by acknowledging that he hasn’t lowered the state’s highest-in-the-nation property taxes. 

Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli is barraging the airwaves with a clip of video tape that shows Murphy saying “If you're a one-issue voter and tax rate is your issue, we're probably not your state.” 

It’s a potent issue for Republicans because it appeals to a wide cross-section of suburban voters who make up a large voting bloc in New Jersey. 

“People in New Jersey understand [taxes] are high and they understand they're going to be some of the highest in the country, but they want a governor who cares about it and is trying to lower them,” said Mike DuHaime, a Republican strategist who was behind Chris Christie’s defeat of Jon Corzine in 2009. 

The video of Murphy talking about taxes, the governor says, is taken out of context.  He was talking to a business group, explaining that New Jersey is never going to compete with low-tax states like Texas or Florida, but businesses should want to come to New Jersey because New Jersey is, as Murphy often puts it, a “high tax, high value” state:

“The best public schools in America. It means among the best healthcare systems in America. It means a location second to none,” Murphy told The Brian Lehrer Show on WNYC earlier this month.  “It means a quality of life. It means extraordinary diversity.”

The governor also has been countering the Ciattarelli blitz on taxes by arguing that he’s made the state more affordable and shifted the burden by raising taxes on millionaires.  

“You're paying lower income taxes, you're paying less for health care, you're paying less for child care, you're paying less for college, you're not paying one cent more to ride on NJ transit,” Murphy said at the first debate. “These guys created a mess and left it for guys like me to clean it up and we'll do just that.”

Classic architecture houses by Glenside Ave in Scotch Plains, New Jersey. Next to Watchung Reservation. Empty street; no people, no traffic. Cloudy day in winter, Trees without leaves.

A street in Scotch Plains, NJ

A street in Scotch Plains, NJ
Felipe Mahecha / Shutterstock

There's a public perception that former Governor Chris Christie lowered taxes and Murphy is a tax-and-spend liberal. But the numbers tell a different story. Property taxes went up by 18% in Christie’s first term, compared to 4% during the Murphy Administration. And the cuts in spending during the Christie years coincided with a poor economic performance, according to data collected by Bloomberg News. New Jersey lagged behind almost all other states in its recovery from the 2008 recession. Today, judging by six economic indicators, that has changed.

“New Jersey has got the strongest economy of any state over the past few years. And that's not by accident,” said Brandon McKoy, the outgoing president of  New Jersey Policy Perspective, a liberal think tank. He argues Murphy has been successful because governments need to spend more, not less, during a recession. 

“It's really hard to have an objective view of this and consider him anything but really good,” McKoy said. He points to lower taxes for people with low and moderate incomes, investments in state infrastructure and the first full payment into the state pension fund.  

On the other side of the research aisle, Garden State Initiative, a conservative group led by former Chris Christie chief of staff Regina Egea,  released a report last month that criticizes the 30% increase in Murphy's budget during his four years in office, Murphy’s reliance on one-time infusions of money, such as federal COVID relief funds, and increasing the state’s debt. 

“Anyone who says that issuing bonds to pay for their operating budget is a good thing is probably a bond issuer,” said Thad Calabrese, a NYU professor who studies public finance and is one of the authors of Garden State Initiative’s report. “I've never heard anyone who has any serious budget training think that paying for recurring expenses in your operating budget by issuing debt is the proper and good way to finance the government.”

For example, Calabrese believes it’s a bad idea to pay for an expansion in pre-K school funding, which is an ongoing cost, by using borrowed money to balance the budget.

Calabrese notes that his critique of Murphy includes every New Jersey governor over the last few decades from both parties.

The cost of running government programs is expensive because New Jersey has some of the highest cost of living expenses. Pay must be higher for public employees, like teachers and police officers, so that they can afford to live in the state. And their union contracts have cost of living increases built into them. Another cost driver is the huge number of government entities: The state has 565 municipalities and almost 599 school districts. As a comparison, Virginia, a similar sized state, has 227 school districts. 

“I think [Murphy has]done a reasonable job,” said Marc Pfeiffer, a policy fellow at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy  at Rutgers University.  “Taxes on the average middle-class, lower-income-class individual, because of state actions, have not gone up significantly.” 

Pfeiffer says one method to reduce the cost of government would be to merge towns and school districts, which would cut the number of administrators overall. But that would trip another third rail of New Jersey politics.

“People want some individual control over where they live, the services that are provided and the environment in each community,” Pfeiffer said. “And that's what we have.”

A previous version of this article incorrectly identified the Garden State Initiative research group. The nonprofit is not affiliated with a political party.