Lawmakers won’t vote on plan to extend Murphy’s emergency powers

By: - January 10, 2022 4:30 pm

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney speaks to a colleague prior to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivering his budget address for fiscal year 2016 to the Legislature, February 24, 2015 at the Statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. (Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

Legislators backed away Monday from a resolution that would have extended a series of pandemic-related administrative orders and allowed other executive actions to expire.

The move makes it more likely that Gov. Phil Murphy will redeclare a public health emergency, one that would allow him access to broad executive powers he used liberally in the pandemic’s early months.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) announced during Monday’s Senate voting session that lawmakers would not vote on the resolution. Sweeney said the Murphy administration had not informed the Legislature that the governor would announce he is extending a schools mask mandate indefinitely. Murphy made that announcement Monday afternoon.

“They didn’t tell us they were making any kind of announcement today,” Sweeney said during a press gaggle after Monday’s voting session. “I’m done for now. But the way I feel about it is it was just disrespectful, in my mind, to make the announcement while we’re on the floor. Someone give us a text, an email, a phone call, something.”

Legislative leaders and the governor reached an agreement to sunset the initial public health emergency declaration last June but allowed a series of pandemic-related measures to stay in effect until Jan. 11, with the option to renew them for 90 additional days.

On Jan. 1, the administration requested the Legislature extend a series of virus mitigation measures. The items on that list varied widely, ranging from oblique administrative rules related to hospitals to executive orders on youth day camps that won’t be relevant until the summer.

Republicans have railed against Murphy’s handling of the pandemic for nearly two years, charging the governor was too ready to rule by executive action and saying legislative Democrats were too eager to cede their authority to the governor.

Murphy’s comments on Monday prompted a renewed round of criticism from Republicans

“It didn’t matter what we negotiated. It didn’t matter,” said Sen. Steve Oroho (R-Sussex), the incoming Senate minority leader. “They almost said we don’t matter, so unless the legislature stands up and says we’re a co-equal branch of government, they’re going to continue to say that.”

Democrats warmed to that view in recent months, with some raising similar concerns about being removed from the lawmaking process after Republicans in November captured the most legislative seats they’ve won in years. Those victories were fueled, in part, by animus over virus restrictions.

Some of the most controversial measures imposed by the governor, including a mask mandate for the state’s schools, were not among the items that would have been extended by the Legislature’s resolution.

Murphy on Monday said that mandate would continue “for the foreseeable future,” though he declined to say what mechanisms he would use to extend school masking rules.

The June bill that curbed the governor’s executive authority did not bar him from once more declaring a public health emergency and thereby regaining those powers.

Still, though Murphy may regain broad authority to enact rules related to the pandemic, he is unlikely to reinstate some of the strictest policies used to combat the spread of COVID-19, like widespread shutdowns of non-essential businesses and a remote schooling mandate.

It’s unclear how Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the incoming Senate president, will react to Murphy’s use of executive powers, and the Linden resident declined to give an overview of his plan.

“I’ll make that evaluation when I see what his decision is. He hasn’t made one, so we won’t either,” Scutari said. “I’m not going to act unilaterally either. I have a leadership team that’s in place to consult with, and these are all important measures. We’ll consider them as they come forward.”


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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.