Another vaccine-rule dustup expected in Assembly Monday

Some GOP members plan to comply or vote remotely

By: - December 17, 2021 6:09 pm

Members of the Assembly gathered for a voting session on Dec. 2, 2021. (Daniella Heminghaus for New Jersey Monitor)

Some Assembly Republicans will again defy statehouse vaccine rules during voting sessions on Monday, the New Jersey Monitor has learned.

On a caucus call that lasted for more than an hour Friday, GOP members in the lower chamber discussed their plans for Monday’s voting session, the second since the State Capitol Joint Management Commission enacted rules requiring all entrants to the statehouse be vaccinated or submit proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test or be turned away.

“I have no intention of complying with the statehouse policy,” Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) said.

Though dissent is expected from some GOP members Monday, other Assembly Republicans intend to comply with the policy, while others are expected to steer clear of Trenton and cast votes remotely.

“My plan, unless something changes — there’s a deal with the speaker’s office or whatever, my plan is to vote remotely,” said Assemblyman Chris DePhillips (R-Bergen).

Vaccine opponents are also set to rally at the statehouse Monday morning to protest the capitol complex policy, with a handful of Republican members expected to take part.

Assembly Republicans caused a stir that drew national attention during a voting session on Dec. 2 after several members pushed past New Jersey State Police troopers set to enforce the statehouse’s vaccine policy at the entrance to the Assembly floor.

Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this week said the New Jersey State Police had launched an investigation into the enforcement of the statehouse’s vaccine or test mandate, but it’s unclear when residents should expect the results of that probe.

It’s not clear whether State Police troopers had the authority to physically bar lawmakers from the floor. Provisions of the New Jersey Constitution bar the arrest of legislators going to or leaving their chamber.

Assembly Republicans’ noncompliance outraged Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex), who truncated the Dec. 2 voting session after passing a handful of bills. As a result, the Assembly board list includes a mammoth 158 bills and resolutions, though 41 of those items are duplicate measures from the upper chamber.

By contrast, the Senate has 73 bills on its voting session agenda, just 20 of which are duplicate Assembly bills.

Senate Republicans spoke against the vaccine-or-test policy enacted by State Capitol Joint Management Commission from the floor of their chamber earlier this month but have complied with the policy.

Lawmakers who do not show their vaccine card or a recent negative test can still cast votes, but they must do so remotely. At least some Assembly Republicans plan to comply with the policy and cast their votes in person.

“I’m going to come on Monday. I’m going to comply. That’s all I can say,” Assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce (R-Morris) said before Friday’s caucus call. “I don’t believe in mandates — and I will not agree to ever mandate the vaccine — but I feel that the statehouse has been going through this protocol all these months. And I don’t see where we’re any different than them.”

DeCroce was one of three at least three GOP Assembly members to attend in-person committee meetings held last Monday. Most of the caucus’s members called into their committee meetings, and some of those who did faced technical difficulties that left portions of meetings inaudible.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who was elected to his district’s state Senate seat this year, has also said he intends to comply with the vaccine policy.

After the fracas on Dec. 2, Democratic legislative leaders stepped up enforcement of the statehouse restrictions, funneling visitors through a single entrance in the Statehouse Annex courtyard, though a handful of other entrances remained open to legislators.

They’ve also erected a testing tent for lawmakers just outside the statehouse and significantly increased visible State Police presence in the capitol complex.

Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) and Assemblyman John DiMaio (R-Warren), the incoming minority leaders in their respective chambers, earlier this month filed a suit against the vaccine rules imposed by the State Capitol Joint Management Commission in a bid to block the new statehouse rules, but that suit won’t reverse the policy in the short term.

An Appellate Division judge last week refused to enjoin the vaccine-or-testing rules, noting legislators would still have to comply by a separate but largely identical policy enacted by Coughlin and Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who have rule-making powers over their chambers.

The Republican suit won’t be heard until April, with initial briefs from both parties due in January.

The fracas over statehouse vaccine rules comes amid a surge in COVID-19 cases that appears poised to rival record-high case counts seen last winter.

The state on Friday reported 6,260 new cases of COVID-19, the fourth-highest daily total reported since the start of the pandemic. The three days with higher totals, each reported in January, came before most New Jerseyans were eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.

Murphy on Friday warned those omicron-variant fueled case counts could presage the return of capacity limits imposed on businesses for much of the pandemic.

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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.

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