Lawmakers let all Murphy’s pandemic orders lapse over mask issue
TRENTON – State lawmakers did not vote Monday on a scaled-back resolution extending many of Gov. Phil Murphy’s pandemic orders by 45 days, after the governor announced he would continue a school mask mandate that isn’t part of the now-shelved bill.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, announced the change of plans after a parade of Republican lawmakers complained in speeches on the Senate floor that the Democratic governor was ignoring them and the proposed resolution. They said they were getting calls and emails from angry constituents.
“This is very upsetting to get these calls while we’re here,” Sweeney said. “We were not informed of them taking this action today, and we will not move these resolutions today.”
A law Murphy signed last June that ended the public health emergency effective July 4 allowed some pandemic-era orders and directives to remain in effect until the end of Jan. 11, at which point they would expire unless lawmakers agreed with Murphy's request for them to be renewed another 90 days.
Murphy made that request on the Jan. 1 deadline, but Democratic legislative leaders instead opted for a 45-day renewal. They also didn’t include everything Murphy sought, including authority to act on federal guidelines around masking, testing and vaccines.
Murphy: Mask rule 'only responsible course'
Without specifying how, Murphy said at a COVID briefing the mask mandate will remain in place. It's possible he could again declare a public health emergency, though it's not clear if that's what will happen.
“Because we must keep our kids learning in-person, I want to be clear with, by the way, with no joy, with no joy, again with no joy, that the mask mandates in schools and daycare centers will continue at least for the foreseeable future,” Murphy said. “These requirements again give us no joy, but they’re the only responsible course of action at this time.”
“I don’t have a specific construct for you, but we’re working very cooperatively with the legislative leadership to make sure that we’ve got a good pathway forward, particularly given the overwhelming tsunami that we’re dealing with,” Murphy said.
Republicans push back
Sen. Steve Oroho, R-Sussex, the incoming Senate minority leader, said Republicans four times offered resolutions and amendments over the last two years to limit Murphy’s authority but were blocked each time.
“We’re a co-equal branch of government. We got elected on the same day the governor got elected,” Oroho said. “And I’m not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but there’s three branches of government. And he represents one branch of government.”
“We didn’t even yet vote on the legislation that’s before us, and we’ve already heard that it basically doesn’t matter,” he said.
“Regardless of whether or not you support or you’re adamantly against allowing continued mask mandates,” said Sen. Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen, “I think it’s a bit unconscionable as we all sit here to do our jobs as members of the Legislature that the governor feels comfortable circumventing each and every single one of us and circumventing the specific limited enumerated powers that this legislative body may have granted him today.”
“For some, the reckoning came last November. But there will be a reckoning for others, for all of us,” said Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris. “We will be asked, and history will not judge this body well. Because they’ll ask us what we did for two years, and quite frankly, Mr. Senate President, we don’t have a record to show for that. We did nothing.”
Monday’s voting sessions were the last scheduled in the two-year legislative session, which expires at noon Tuesday. The new Legislature takes office Tuesday at noon, and Murphy delivers his State of the State – virtually, in a prerecorded video – at 5 p.m.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.