Public banned from debate to extend Murphy’s pandemic power
Public outcry derailed legislative attempts to extend Governor Phil Murphy's sweeping pandemic powers last month, so legislative leaders are banning the public from having any say on the matter when it comes up for a vote later today.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin have fast tracked the bill that was just released Wednesday. They will bypass the regular committee hearing process and will take no public testimony before a vote scheduled for this afternoon. Murphy has said he will let the public health emergency declaration expire this month, but only if lawmakers grant him an extension of power. The bill (A5820/S3866) extends 14 executive orders through the end of the year, and possibly longer. New Jersey 101.5's Michael Symons details the changes from previous legislation here.
Among the provisions that will remain in place include the moratorium on evictions for those who can't pay rent and the moratorium on utility shutoffs for non-payment, but there are also conditions that would allow Murphy to impose new restrictions or reenact restrictions that have already been lifted, like a mask mandate. While there is language in the bill that says he cannot generally impose restrictions beyond what is recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there is an exception. Murphy could exceed CDC recommendations if the rate of transmission rises above 1.0 or there is a "substantial increase" in hospitalizations due to COVID-19 infections.
Sweeney and Coughlin are also supporting provisions that keep much of the state's response to the pandemic shrouded in secrecy. Today's legislation fails to re-impose a 7 day deadline for responding to open public records requests related to pandemic response. Efforts by media, including New Jersey 101.5, to access records about how the state responded to the health crisis have been stymied for months.
While the extension of Murphy's pandemic powers would expire on January 11, 2022, there is also wiggle room for a further extension. It allows Murphy to appeal to the legislature for a 90 day extension. If granted, Murphy would extend his pandemic powers a full nine months after the public health emergency declaration was allowed to expire.