N.J. Gov. Phil Murphy speaking at his inauguration. Photo by Carmen Natale. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy speaking at his inauguration. Photo: Carmen Natale/ALM

It came near the end on his one-hour address outlining a new $38.6 billion budget on Tuesday in Trenton, but New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy threw out a little bombshell that drew loud applause among spectators in the Assembly gallery.

He announced he would only sign off on the closely watched marijuana bill if the measure was amended to expunge the records of those who have been put through the criminal system for prior marijuana offenses.

“This is the right step for eliminating decades-old and persistent racial and social inequities,” Murphy said in his speech. “But it is also our chance to create an entirely new state-based industry with the potential to create thousands of good-paying jobs, expand opportunities for minority business owners, and jump-start billions of dollars in new economic activity.”

The legalization and regulation of marijuana in New Jersey is expected to be a game changer for the businesses and interest groups that stand to profit from it. The legal community, anticipating a new client base to emerge, is also waiting anxiously on weed’s fate.

In the annual report on lobbying expenses among firms released Monday by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), it showed that while overall lobbying spending was down slightly, spending on lobbying over recreational marijuana ramped up 319 percent from $330,935 in 2017 to $1,388,076 in 2018.

After Murphy took office in January 2018, and with Democrats controlling both legislative houses, lobbying activity escalated on the proposed marijuana legalization bill (S 2703).

“This is an unfinished item from last year’s to-do list,” Murphy said. “Let’s commit to completing this effort, together.”

After renewing his calls to legalize weed, Murphy renewed his call to increase fees for gun licenses and handgun permits, expanding on what he said he began in his first year in office.

“It was long past time we did this last year, when we took so many steps to restore our standing as a national leader in gun safety,” the governor said, “and it’s even more past time today.”

Murphy signed legislation to make “ghost guns” illegal in New Jersey; strengthened handgun carry requirements; created the States for Gun Safety Coalition with the governors of New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Delaware and Puerto Rico to create regional solutions for gun violence; and required regular publishing of information about gun crimes and sources of weapons.

“It is actually cheaper to get a permit to purchase a handgun—$2—than it is to get a dog license in many of our communities,” Murphy said during his Budget Address. He said roughly 80 percent of guns used in committing crimes last year in New Jersey came from out of state.

“This is what’s needed to support the efforts of Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, our State Troopers, and county and local law enforcement, to fight crime and track gun violence, and to combat the trafficking of illegal guns into our state,” Murphy said.

Murphy’s proposed $38.6 billion budget also will set aside $100 million to directly combat the state’s opioid epidemic through various programs. It proposes increasing fees on opioid drug distributors and manufacturers.

To generate new revenue, the new budget also seeks to expand the millionaires tax to include every millionaire to help out the middle class. Murphy said it was time to make every millionaire pay the tax, including those that make $1 million.

Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who opposed the millionaires tax in the last legislative session, was clearly not cheering as Murphy announced this latest effort Tuesday—perhaps a signal of what may be another protracted road toward a balanced budget. New Jersey was on the brink of a government shutdown last June 30 when the state’s two most powerful men clashed.

“We have to continue to make the reforms that will allow for investments that address the needs of the people, that make New Jersey a more affordable place to live and that ensure that government operates efficiently and effectively,” Sweeney said in a statement after Murphy’s budget address. “It is now the Legislature’s responsibility to give the budget proposal a thorough review so that we can put a spending plan in place that makes the investments that will expand opportunities for everyone and move the state forward.”