NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- CBSN New York is holding in-depth conversations with the 2021 New Jersey gubernatorial candidates.
CBS2's Kristine Johnson spoke to Democratic candidate and incumbent Gov. Phil Murphy.
The conversation started out with the topic of abortion rights, which Murphy has said will be number one on his agenda should he be re-elected as governor.
Currently, there is a bill that would expand eligibility for late-term abortions, guarantee women's rights to require insurance to pay for the procedure and overall allow women to have the right to have an abortion.
"A woman's reproductive freedom in New Jersey is based entirely right now, as we sit here, on case law and that case law is entirely premised on Roe v. Wade, so with the Trump appointees to the U.S. Supreme Court, the decision they've already taken in Texas and the expectation of decisions they will take going forward, all of those freedoms are at risk," Murphy said. "So the big point here is that we have to put this into statute, into a law that I will sign. So as you rightfully point out, this is among, if not our highest priority after the election, and I want this to be as strong and as robust as possible. This should be a decision, as sober or somber as it is, entirely left between a woman and her doctor, period, and we're committed to getting this thing done as soon as it can."
There is talk that the bill is going to be pared down, but Murphy says his strong hope and expectation is that the bill will be as robust and strong as possible.
One political ad alleges Murphy's Republican opponent, Jack Ciattarelli, is not for women's right to an abortion, but Ciattarelli has said he does support and agrees with codifying the right to abortion.
"I don't know about the ad, but I will say this, and I believe this is a quote or as close to a quote as I can get you. He has said, he's on record as saying, President Trump's greatest legacy were his three picks to the U.S. Supreme Court, so that's all you need to know in terms of where he is in general, but specific to a women's reproductive freedoms, I think that speaks overwhelmingly for itself," Murphy said.
Murphy said this is a huge issue and a "clear and present danger" for women's rights in general and he is incredibly proud of the agenda they've prosecuted over the past four years on behalf of women, from health care to equal pay.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 and the pandemic is still top of mind for many voters.
Murphy was asked why not go ahead and instill an absolute vaccine mandate for everyone in the state, similar to what New York City has done?
"That's certainly still an option on the table, but we think where we are right now is a good place, which is requiring state workers, educators, et cetera, to get vaccinated, if not face multiple tests a week. Masking is mandated in our school buildings. That does not bring me any joy, but that's clearly the right thing we need to do, at least for now. I hope that's not forever and for always, though we've always kept every option on the table. This pandemic, this virus is very humbling. Every time you think you've got it figured out, it takes a turn you don't expect. So all options remain on the table. We are among, if not the most, vaccinated state in America. We have the lowest number of COVID patients in our ICU beds of any American state, so at least for the time being, we think the package that's in place is the right one," Murphy said.
Murphy says if COVID numbers start to go back up again, "all options have to be on the table, sadly."
New Jersey did temporarily put a ban on masks being required to wear in schools at polling stations for Election Day. Murphy says the decision came about because voters should be inside the building for a very limited amount of time and students will not be in the same part of the building as voters.
When it comes to COVID boosters, the governor says the state is already rolling out the Pfizer vaccine.
"If anything, I'm concerned about less demand than I was expecting, so we've got plenty of supply, and the same will be true with J&J and Moderna when they are live and ready to go and the doses for the kids under the age of 12, so we've been very strong on vaccinations generally. I expect that to continue with the boosters. I'm more concerned right now that there are too many people who are eligible right now as we speak who are not getting them and that's something that we got to continue to message and encourage people to get the booster and get further protected," Murphy said.
The governor says he thinks low turnout for boosters is due to mixed messages out of the federal government and people being complacent because they haven't gotten sick.
Public opinion has been in support of how Murphy has handled the pandemic, but critics point out there were about 8,000 deaths in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
"New Jersey got clobbered. We paid an enormous price in this pandemic, over 27,000 losses of life, and the tragedy within the tragedy certainly was the long-term care, including our blessed veterans ... There will be a complete post-mortem on the entirety of the COVID response in our state and that will include long-term care, without a question," Murphy said. "I can't speak for the attorney general, but there were certain operators that were being at least fined if not pursued. It's a law enforcement matter, I have no insight into that, it's an independent process led by the attorney general. We were clear in our guidance, but that does not mean there were certain operators who ignored that guidance."
New Jersey residents struggling to get unemployment checks was another major problem in the state during the pandemic.
"We were hit by a tsunami of claims, and I know this won't make anyone feel better if they're still out there trying to get what's rightfully theirs, no American state dealt with this at a higher level than New Jersey, and again, that's not to say it wasn't frustrating, but everybody got hit and our team, I think, did an outstanding job in the context of that tsunami," Murphy said.
Murphy says they have made investments in the technology and infrastructure of the system.
"We're putting ... many millions in our current budget that we're investing in our own technology, but the gamechanger will be when the feds update their technology, and God willing, sooner rather than later," he said.
New Jersey residents also had to deal with long lines at Motor Vehicle Commission locations as they reopened across the state. Murphy says the silver lining is a lot of transactions are now able to be done online.
Congestion pricing is a topic that's hitting a nerve for a lot of New Jerseyans who commute into New York City. Right now, the MTA's plan is to charge roughly $23 for anyone entering the city going past 60th Street.
"Congestion pricing is a conceptual matter. It's something that we should be willing to embrace. It's good for the environment. Its intentions are smart. When you see other places that have done it around the world, there are some real examples of success. Having said that, there's three requirements as it relates to New Jersey. The most important one of which is we will not allow our commuters going over the George Washington Bridge to get double-taxed. That's just not gonna happen, and we're going to do whatever we can to prevent that from happening," Murphy said.
Murphy says in the proposed or drafted plan, drivers who take the Holland or Lincoln tunnels would be exempt, but George Washington Bridge commuters would be double-taxed.
"Secondly, we've asked for a seat at the table, and thirdly, in a perfect world, we'd get some of the proceeds from this pricing so that we could help invest in smart projects to help New Jersey commuters, maybe even in NJ Transit," Murphy said. "But we're not going to allow any of our commuters to get double-taxed."
The governor says either the New York or New Jersey governor has the ability to say no to any project, including congestion pricing. Murphy says he doesn't have any desire to completely veto the plan and he hopes he doesn't have to, but "if we have to, we will."
Speaking of New Jersey Transit, Murphy says it's getting fixed.
"On-time performance is up. Cancelations are down. Customer satisfaction is up. It is a safe experience. None of that was true almost four years ago," Murphy said.
He also said hundreds of engineers have been added over the past four years.
"We're not in the end zone yet. We still have a ways to go, but everything we've accomplished that I've just mentioned, we've done without raising fares one penny, and I hope we can continue to do that. So NJ Transit is on the path to getting fixed," Murphy said. "It was the number one, way back when, it was the most highly regarded mass transit system in America, and if it kills me, it's gonna be that again before I leave."
CBS2 asked viewers to submit questions for the governor.
One viewer asked, will the cost of living increases for the state pension ever be reinstated?
"I would never say never, but it's something that, it was taken away before I got here. I would love, in a perfect world, to reinstate them. I know a lot of retirees out there have been crushed by that. It was a horrible, callous move. What we have chosen to do ... we have chosen to focus on getting the pension system back to health by making record payments each of the four years we've been here, including this year, the first full pension payment in 25 years. So if we keep doing that for a few more years and we get increased financial flexibility, I would love to be able to reinstate, but I can't commit to that today," Murphy said.
Another viewer expressed concerns about gun violence. New Jersey does have some of the toughest gun restriction rules in the country, so what else can the state do?
"We can tighten them further, and there's a package of gun legislation that hopefully we'll get to after the election ... The big game changer is national gun safety legislation. Why? Because as strong as New Jersey is, 85% of the confiscated crime guns in New Jersey come in from out of state, an iron pipeline from places like Georgia and South Carolina, so we're not an island, unfortunately. We need national, federal gun safety legislation," Murphy said.
As diverse as New Jersey is, there are some racial disparities that still exist today, including some of the most racially segregated schools in the country. Murphy was asked if he's in favor of changing the tax code to help distribute some of those funds to those underfunded school systems.
"We already do. I am proud of the fact that we fund public education at levels that have never been seen before in our state's history. We are the number one ranked public education state in America, but the premise of your question is absolutely right. We still have too many inequities, too much disparity in performance. So for years, and certainly for the four years I've been here, we have disproportionately in those communities and it is working. It's absolutely working, but it's a work in progress. We're not yet where we need to be," Murphy said. "My opponent wants to do something called flat funding, which would crush those communities, crush overwhelmingly Black and brown kids in our state and their families. We cannot do that. We have to continue to disproportionately fund the way we're funding because it's working even though we still have a ways yet to travel."
Another racial disparity in the state is Black people are still jailed at a rate of 12 times more than that of white people. Murphy says he's in favor of eliminating the mandatory minimum sentencing for all non-violent crimes in the state.
The governor has made major investments in wind power and put restrictions on building pipelines, but some environmentalists feel as though he needs to do more.
"We have the most aggressive climate and green energy agenda of any state in America, so I respect the critics enormously. I'd ask them to find one other American state that has more going on right now than New Jersey," Murphy said.
Murphy says New Jersey will be the offshore wind capital of the United States and the state has the strongest environmental justice law in America. The state also has an enormous amount of investment in both electric vehicles and the electric charging infrastructure.
New Jersey had its first $1 billion month in sports betting in September, so where is that money going? Murphy says some amount of money goes into the budget and the programs the state funds, and he adds he wants the guts of the sports betting industry to reside in New Jersey. The governor says he's not sure he's comfortable with college sports betting.
Murphy was asked how New Jersey is going to get people back into the workforce when it seems that there are jobs available but a lack of people willing to take those jobs.
"I think there are a number of reasons, Kristine. The one that is getting more airtime of late seems to be one that makes sense to me, which is folks are working in a job and they say, 'Wait a minute, why am I ... washing dishes for $12 an hour when I could walk down the street and get paid $18 an hour to do X?' I think there's a lot of that going on," Murphy said.
Murphy says the state put out a program a few weeks ago called Return and Earn, which gives the employee $500 in their first check to come back to work and gives the small business $10,000 for training and workforce development for that same employee.
The governor says it seems the program has a good amount of momentum behind and if the evidence supports it, they'll put more money behind it.
Murphy was also asked about the legalization of marijuana.
"Equity is a huge objective of the commission that's setting it up and of me personally. We want to make sure that this is an industry that looks like the great diversity of our state that it will serve," Murphy said.
Some are concerned about the impact on the quality of life in communities.
"We're not embedding marijuana. It's in our state, and the state doesn't regulate it, it doesn't control it, it doesn't protect our kids. While I got behind supporting this because of social justice, the fact of the matter is the state will be the gatekeeper. It will be ... put into a regulated industry. It's 21 and up, so there will be a way, God willing, to better protect our kids, and I think for all those reasons, particularly if we do it in an equitable way, at the end of the day, this is a positive step in a big way, as opposed to the opposite," Murphy said.
Looking ahead, Murphy says there will not be a run for president and he is "1,000%" focused on New Jersey.
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