Plan by Murphy, top Dems to end N.J.’s COVID health emergency is suddenly in trouble

Posted May 20, 2021

A much-debated plan that would end New Jersey’s public health emergency over COVID-19 but allow Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration to retain a number of powers to keep battling the pandemic through the end of this year has hit a sudden road block.

State Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin abruptly announced he canceled a planned vote on the measure Thursday so lawmakers could “refine” the proposal to make it “the fairest and most responsible bill possible.”

“I am committed to ending the public health emergency,” Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said in a statement. “This is extremely important legislation that we must get right.”

The move comes just six days after Murphy, Coughlin, and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney — all Democrats — announced a deal to end the public health emergency that has given Murphy sweeping powers the last 14 months to combat the coronavirus, including setting mask mandates and business restrictions.

With New Jersey’s COVID-19 numbers improving dramatically as vaccinations continue, Murphy said he would end the emergency next month if the Democratic-controlled state Legislature passed a bill to allow his administration to retain “tools” to keep fighting the crisis and rolling out vaccinations.

The bill (A5777) would revoke nearly all of Murphy’s executive orders related to the pandemic, but it wouldn’t wipe away all restrictions. Instead, it would keep 15 of the orders until January 2022 — including a moratorium on evictions and utility shutoffs, as well whatever current masking and social distancing measures are in place at the time.

Murphy would also continue to oversee vaccine distribution, and he could revoke or alter any of the remaining orders before the end of the year — though he could make them more restrictive only if the state’s COVID-19 numbers get worse.

But Republicans — who have repeatedly criticized Murphy for issuing orders without getting input from the Legislature — trashed the bill.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, R-Union, said Thursday that it would “basically change how Trenton and the government was going to do business,” continuing to allow Murphy to make decisions unilaterally about housing, insurance schools, and businesses.

Republicans say they instead want lawmakers to have a voice in how to manage the pandemic, including holding public hearings.

“My concern here focuses on the rights of every citizen to be heard through their legislature,” Bramnick said during a zoom news conference after Coughlin’s announcement. “This was a dangerous attempt to take away the rights of every one of you and give them to one person.”

Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, said the measure would continue a “dictatorship” that Murphy has enjoyed for more than a year.

“It’s time for King Phil to get off the throne and allow legislators to get back to work,” Wirths said.

State Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, said the bill is “rubber-stamping” the governor’s orders until 2022 and “looks more like Stockholm syndrome than true oversight by a supposedly co-equal branch of government.”

Sweeney, the state Senate president, told NJ Advance Media on Tuesday he was disappointed in Republicans because the bill is a compromise that allows the Legislature to become “a partner” in the pandemic response.

“I don’t want to tie their hands on dealing with pandemic issues,” Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said of Murphy’s administration.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr., R-Union, said Republicans were ”never consulted or invited to be part of any negotiation on ending the public health emergency.”

”Keeping emergency executive orders and unnecessary restrictions in place after the public health emergency has ended makes absolutely no sense,” Kean added. “If asked, we would have told them it’s a bad deal.”

Two legislative sources told NJ Advance Media that some lawmakers from both parties were “getting heat” from constituents about the bill and got spooked in a year when all 120 seats in the Legislature are on the ballot. Some lawmakers also personally felt the measure didn’t go far enough in curbing Murphy’s powers, one source said.

The sources spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly.

Coughlin said in his statement he made the decision to cancel Thursday’s vote after speaking with “legislative colleagues, advocates, and other interested parties.”

One source said a big issue is that Murphy has decided to keep the state’s indoor mask mandate in place for all people despite recent federal guidance that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear face coverings in most cases.

Murphy has said the state needs more time to keep driving down coronavirus numbers and that he will likely ease the mandate in the coming weeks. He hinted Wednesday that the state is likely to take more steps to relax restrictions by Memorial Day, which is 11 days away.

One source said the bill will likely be amended, though it’s unclear what changes would be made.

If the Legislature doesn’t pass a measure that Murphy agrees with by mid-June, it’s possible the governor could extend the public health emergency into a 15th month. That would keep all of his orders him place and continue to give his administration most of the authority responding to the pandemic.

Alyana Alfaro, a spokeswoman for Murphy’s office, said Thursday the governor “believes that the state must move beyond the Public Health Emergency responsibly, and in a way that ensures the administration retains necessary tools to manage recovery and vaccination efforts, as well as the continued threat to public health.”

“The governor will continue to work with Legislative leadership to ensure we achieve this shared goal, Alfaro added.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen, R-Morris, on Thursday called for the Legislature to vote on a Republican-sponsored bill (A4147) in which lawmakers would have to extend or revoke each of the governor’s executive orders after 14 days. Democratic Assembly leaders tabled the motion.

“Who’s reigning in the governor?” Bergen asked. “What are you doing to make us a co-equal branch of government instead of the governor’s lapdog?”

Former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, the favorite for the Republican nomination to challenge Murphy in November’s election, tweeted that the governor is “learning that the public has had enough of his abusive executive orders.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-05-21 03:10:41 -0700