Lawmakers expected a bill eliminating the religious exemption for vaccinations to cause a stir, but its lead Senate sponsor didn’t foresee it prompting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters to assail the state house for days on end.
That bill failed to win enough votes to pass in the legislature’s lame duck session, but State Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), the measure’s chief Senate sponsor, and Senate President Steve Sweeney have said that onlookers should expect the bill — and the protesters — to return once more.
While the Assembly passed the measure by a relatively tight but still safe margin of 45-25 on December 16, defections in the Senate Majority Caucus stalled it in the upper chamber.
The stumble resulted partly out of an oversight. Senate Democrats didn’t conduct a hard count on the vaccine bill in caucus that day, despite the chamber’s voting session being pushed back roughly two and a half hours past its scheduled time.
Democratic Senate sources said a handful of members vacillated between yes and no over the course of the day, but eventually, enough legislators landed in the no column to stall the bill.
The New Jersey Globe has identified five senators — Sens. Joseph Lagana (D-Paramus), Ronald Rice (D-Newark), Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), Nia Gill (D-Montclair) and Dawn Addiego (D-Evesham) — who intended to vote against the bill in December.
Sweeney stripped Lagana of his seats on the influential Senate Judiciary and Health committees as punishment for his refusal to support the measure, and pulled an undisclosed amount of his Senate leadership money — funds used to supplement his staff budget.
Of those five, Rice, Turner and Gill are considered immovable.
“I think the members who support the bill support it for all the right reasons, and it’s not necessary to try to inform them about the bill. They already know what the bill provides,” Vitale said. “Those who don’t support the bill, I don’t know that any manner of information will change their position.”
Sources speaking on the condition of anonymity have told the New Jersey Globe it’s possible that Lagana and Addiego could be convinced to vote in favor of the bill, though it’d be a hard sell, and it’s unlikely they would vote for a measure that resembles the December vaccine bill or the version that failed to win enough support in the Senate on Jan. 13.
In an effort to get to 21 votes, Democrats added amendments sought by State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon.
Those changes created carveouts for private schools and daycare centers.
Unvaccinated children would still be able to attend those institutions, though the schools would be required to publish a count of the unvaccinated children enrolled. They also would have had the option to adopt policies requiring students be vaccinated to attend.
“It was a compromise,” Vitale said. “I’d prefer that we have not embraced them, but it was an important suggestion to move the issue forward.”
O’Scanlon floated those amendments during the December 16 voting session, though Sweeney was still scrambling to get his caucus in line at that point.
Though they had won over a single Republican vote — the rest of the caucus opposed the measure, some vocally, some not — Democratic leaders in the Senate were still unsure whether they would reach 21.
Politico New Jersey that day reported that State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, who is also North Bergen Mayor, had shifted into the no column.
The New Jersey Globe has since confirmed Sacco was a no vote.
State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) would have voted no in the Health Committee — he was subbed out for that meeting — and pushed for changes, but ultimately would have sided with his Monmouth County Senate colleague, O’Scanlon.
The O’Scanlon amendments themselves caused some friction.
Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle), who opposed the original version of the bill, charged the amended measure would enforce effectively segregated rich and poor students while failing to address the risk of a public health crisis in private schools.
Last year, Lakewood was host to an outbreak of measles. The largest and fastest-growing town in Ocean County, Lakewood is host to a large community of Orthodox Jews, many of whom attend private Yeshivas in the township.
Children belonging to Orthodox families are vaccinated at lower rates, and health officials have pointed to those communities as being at the center of measles outbreaks in Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York.
Despite Holley’s vocal protest and efforts to lobby against the bill, Democrats in the chamber held onto a 42-vote majority needed to pass the measure, though because the O’Scanlon amendments originated in the Senate, the chamber never held a vote on the amended bill.
It’s not clear what caused Sacco’s opposition, though Democrats in the Senate believe he could be convinced to vote in favor of a separate measure.
Both Sweeney and Vitale have said the days of prolonged protests, which were often loud enough to drown out proceedings in the Senate chambers did not scare off any members.
(The Assembly largely escaped the protesters, partly because the chamber faced few problems passing the bill and partly because its location in the statehouse complex prevents protesters from shouting and chanting from its immediate vicinity.)
“For those who are opposed to the bill, their activity reinforced their opposition, but I can’t speak for them,” Vitale said of the protesters. “I’ve spoken to some of the members. Those few members who opposed the bill, and their opposition was for a variety of different reasons. I don’t know that the crowd made a difference at all.”
For much of the last month, members’ phones have been clogged with calls from vaccine opponents, though Sweeney has claimed that was the result of a concerted effort by a relatively small group of anti-vaxx individuals.
Vitale said the measure will return in the new session, though it’s unclear how the new bill will differ from the one that died Monday.
“Maybe the bill has to look somewhat different again to gain more support,” Vitale said. “I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Vitale said it was too early to tell what changes might be made to the bill. Conversations are ongoing, and some proposed amendments are floating around the statehouse.
In any case, he said onlookers should expect a new version to pop up “sooner rather than later.”
That version will have to go through committee once more, and it’ll likely draw renewed protests from vaccine opponents.
On Dec. 12, vaccine opponents arrived hours early to a Senate Health, Human and Senior Services Committee meeting where the vaccine bill was being heard.
They packed the room to capacity, refused to leave and frequently heckled a hearing held by the Select Committee on New Jersey Transit that was scheduled to take place in the same room two hours before the Health Committee hearing.
Sweeney on Tuesday said he’d welcome the protestors back when the new version of the bill was introduced.
“We’re coming back to this, and we’re going to have hearings, and we’ll let them speak,” he said. “We’ll let their experts speak, and then we’ll speak, but we’re coming back to this.”