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Senate Minority Whip Joseph Pennacchio (R-Montville). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Republicans prepare for COVID hearings after months spent waiting

GOP’s first pass to focus on nursing homes

By Nikita Biryukov, March 04 2021 1:27 pm

New Jersey Republicans will fire the opening salvo of a concerted campaign against Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of the pandemic when they meet for an independent virtual hearing Friday morning.

For months, Republicans have sought a public — read: official — forum to examine Murphy’s handling of the virus, hoping to work in some election-year dings on a governor whose approval ratings swelled above 70% along with the first wave of infections.

Friday’s hearing, the first of three, will focus on the state’s long-term care centers and veteran memorial homes, where more than 8,000 residents and staff have died in the year since New Jersey discovered its first case of the virus.

“The Democrats sat on their hands. Somehow their spines evaporated and they couldn’t get the votes of enough people on their side of the aisle who care about the lives lost and accountability for how the situation was handled,” said State Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Little Silver), who will appear on the bicameral panel. “Republicans are moving on our own, unfortunately without subpoena power.”

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) in May said they would create a special committee to investigate the state’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, but that announcement was followed by silence and, later, by Republican chafing over the lack of such an investigation.

The first panel will feature testimony from those bereaved by the virus, as well as at least one doctor and a nurse who will remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, O’Scanlon said.

But the hearing likely won’t feature any Democrats, though the GOP has asked some to appear. Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli and Interim Adjutant General Lisa Hou, the acting commissioner of military and veteran affairs, were extended invitations to testify, but their only reply was a series of links to online documents, a Senate Republican staffer said.

Democratic lawmakers didn’t return their summons either.

“We’ve invited Democrats to join,” O’Scanlon said. “I don’t think we’ve had any of them with the spine to do so, which is a real shame, but we’re going to move forward on our own because we do care the welfare of these most vulnerable amongst us, even if Democrats don’t.”

The reluctance is unsurprising. Every member of the legislature is up for re-election this year, as is Murphy, and the party views the deaths at nursing homes, along with school closures that threaten to alienate suburban voters who had been trending Democratic under President Donald Trump as a significant vulnerability.

Democrats, including Murphy have derided federal probes into the state’s pandemic response launched under President Donald Trump as partisan ones, and the Republicans are predicting a similar response to their hearings.

“I know Democrats are going to paint this as a partisan committee, but that’s not because of us. We held out that olive branch,” State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Montville) said. “We tried on numerous occasions to work with them. We had a commitment that they would have this committee. It never happened.”

Republican efforts at a committee investigation didn’t die in May. They’ve repeatedly sent letters to Democratic legislative leaders such a body. Pennacchio also thrice tried to move a resolution creating a special committee on the Senate floor, but Democrats blocked those moves.

Schools won’t come up at Friday’s hearing, though they could be the subject of a future panel. Republicans are already planning ones on impacted businesses, the governor’s executive orders, troubles with the state’s unemployment system and long lines at the Motor Vehicle Commission.

There’ll be three total hearings, said Pennacchio, who is chairing Friday’s panel. Murphy’s directive ordering the state’s nursing homes to readmit and segregate from the general population residents who tested positive for COVID-19 is likely to get some play, as are comparisons to New York’s response. The directive barred nursing homes from testing medically stable residents for the virus.

State Sens. Kristin Corrado (R-Totowa), Michael Testa (R-Vineland), Steve Oroho (R-Franklin), Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Parsippany-Troy Hills) and Assemblyman Christopher DePhillips (R-Wyckoff) will join O’Scanlon and Pennacchio on the panel.

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