GOP launches campaign to pressure Murphy on pandemic restrictions, excess revenue

By: - February 3, 2022 3:36 pm

GOP Sen. Steve Oroho (Courtesy of New Jersey Senate Democrats)

Senate Republicans launched a pressure campaign Thursday with hopes of convincing Gov. Phil Murphy to pull back a series of pandemic restrictions and budgeting decisions, among some nebulous demands.

During a brief virtual press conference, the minority caucus announced the launch of its “Give it Back” initiative. The push will see Republican officeholders drive voters to social media platforms, newspaper opinion pages, and an online petition to urge Murphy to withdraw vaccine and school mask mandates, return $3 billion in excess revenue to voters, and halt a 2020 law that would shorten the sentences of some state inmates.

“The senate Republicans are launching, as you can probably figure, the ‘give it back’ initiative to give New Jerseyans an opportunity to tell Gov. Murphy, in a unified voice, to give back everything he has taken from them over the past two years,” Senate Minority Leader Steve Oroho (R-Sussex) said.

The push follows Murphy’s reinstatement of a public health emergency last month. Murphy has until Feb. 10 to extend the declaration, which provides him with broad executive powers for a 30-day period.

Republicans said that looming deadline played a role in the launch of their campaign but it was not the only driver.

“Yes, it has to do with next week, but it also has to do with really, truly an obscene amount of money that the state is holding, or will hold shortly, that’s not in people’s wallets, it’s not in business people’s budgets,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “We need to give that back.”

Though tax collections sagged during broad shutdowns issued in the early months of the pandemic, they rebounded beyond Treasury estimates. In February 2021, the Murphy administration raised its revenue projections by $3.2 billion.

That surge in revenue followed $4.2 billion in bonds issued in 2020 to plug a budget hole that never materialized. Republicans opposed the borrowing and launched an unsuccessful legal challenge to halt it.

New Jersey’s laws and constitution grant few powers to citizen petitions. Residents can trigger a recall by gathering the signatures of 25% of voters registered in a given district — or in the state for a statewide office — but there is no mechanism by which a petition can create or advance legislation without lawmakers’ assistance.

It’s unclear whether Murphy, who is prevented by term limits from seeking re-election in 2025, will feel much heat from the Republican push. Democratic legislators may be more susceptible to its influence. Every seat in the Legislature is up for grabs next year.

Democrats’ legislative losses in 2021 — ones that led to the GOP gaining seven seats in the Democratic-controlled Legislature — were their worst in years and were driven partly by animus to pandemic-related executive orders issued by the governor, including masking and vaccine mandates.

O’Scanlon has reintroduced a bill that would require the Legislature to approve the extension of public health and state of emergency declarations that last for more than 60 days. That bill has won a single Democratic sponsor, Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), but O’Scanlon said he doesn’t expect it to get a wave of Democratic support.

“It’s my understanding that the administration has cracked the whip, and the rest of the Democrats in the Legislature are hesitating,” O’Scanlon said, accusing Democrats of being “spineless” for not supporting his bill.


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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.