Lawmakers sent a bill providing Gov. Phil Murphy with non-emergency pandemic powers to the governor’s desk in narrow party-line votes Thursday, setting up an end to a public health emergency declaration that’s been in place for roughly 15 months.
Republicans staunchly opposed the measure, with testimony against the proposal stretching for more than an hour between both chambers.
The bill will keep 14 of Murphy’s pandemic-related executive orders in place while sunsetting the rest. He would retain the ability to make new rules on vaccine distribution, virus testing and health care staffing and data collection until Jan. 11, 2022, but be bound by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on gathering limits and masking.
Republicans assailed the bill from multiple directions, charging simultaneously that it was too little too late and that the breakneck pace of its passage did voters few favors.
“Today, we’ve suspended democracy,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield) said from his chamber’s floor. “We saw a large gathering of people outside who had no opportunity to be heard.”
The bill was introduced on Tuesday and moved directly to second reading, a maneuver that allows it to circumvent a committee hearing, before being approved by both chambers Thursday afternoon.
Protestors assailed the Statehouse Thursday, seeking to push Democratic lawmakers to vote against the measure. The raucous demonstration could be heard from within the Senate chambers for much of the 50 minutes lawmakers spent debating the bill.
They chanted “kill the bill” and “Murphy is not our king” with airhorns for instrumental backing. After the bill cleared the Senate, which was second to pass the measure, they began chanting “we will vote you out.”
The bill, which Murphy in a joint statement with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge) said he intends to sign Friday, is part of a deal to sunset the state’s public health emergency, which provides the governor with broad powers to unilaterally manage the state’s pandemic response.
“We are confident that now is the right time to take this action, particularly as the final limits on gatherings are lifted tomorrow,” they said. “With passage of this bill today and its signing tomorrow, followed by the Governor’s signing of an executive order terminating the Public Health Emergency, we will move closer to normal than at any time since March 2020.”
The three top Democrats last month announced the declaration, which must be renewed every 30 days, would be allowed to lapse if a measure like the one approved Thursday was sent to Murphy’s desk before mid-June.
Republican lawmakers have long criticized the governor for handling of a pandemic. They’ve made several attempts to push a bill that would require he seek legislative approval for executive orders 14 days after they are issued, though each of those attempts were struck down by Democratic majorities.
“Those of us who were elected to represent our constituents have been brushed aside while Murphy has done every single thing that he wants,” State Sen. Michael Testa (R-Vineland) said. “I have been extremely disappointed by Governor Murphy, and I am disappointed by my colleagues in this house. The Democratic majority has been feckless”
The extension of the state’s moratorium on evictions was another sticking point for Republican lawmakers, who questioned whether the rule was necessary and warned about its impact on landlords.
They also pushed for changes to rules requiring children to wear masks in schools and during some summer camp activities. Those restrictions would remain in place under the new bill, though Sweeney said that wasn’t a decision made by Murphy — or one he would be able to make under the bill.
“Children with masks, that’s the CDC setting those guidelines. Do we want to ignore the CDC? We all said when governor murphy hesitated removing masks ‘We need to follow the CDC guidelines, but we’re not going to do it when it comes to our children,’” Sweeney said. “Hopefully things get better and they continue to get better and those masks will be lifted by the CDC.”