The New Jersey Assembly made history Wednesday as it conducted its first session without members being present in chambers in Trenton due to COVID-19. Lawmakers passed as emergencies five measures to further deal with the viral pandemic’s effects in the state.
New Jersey is one of only nine states, plus the District of Columbia, in which lawmakers are continuing to meet during the current outbreak, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Close to half of all states — 23 in total — have adjourned, suspended or postponed sessions due to the virus. The others either have already completed sessions or have not yet begun them this year.
Legislators are able to keep meeting remotely, and thus observe social distancing guidelines, due to a law Gov. Phil Murphy signed last week that was part of the first emergency bill package they passed. The second law he signed this session (A-3852) allows the Legislature to meet outside of the State House in Trenton and use electronic means to conduct business during a state of emergency.
Disability and family leave
Probably the most significant bill was one that will expand both the state’s temporary disability and family leave insurance programs to cover the novel coronavirus that has sickened more than 4,400 New Jerseyans and killed 62. Murphy quickly signed the measure (S-2304), after it was sent by the Assembly. (The bill had previously passed the Senate.) Before the bill was passed, a person quarantining due to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, or caring for a family member would not necessarily qualify for payments under the disability or family leave programs.
“The coronavirus pandemic is creating health care challenges with economic consequences for workers and their families that are likely to become worse,” said Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) in a statement following final passage of the bill. “We must work together to be resourceful, responsive and proactive at a time when so many people are experiencing hardship due to the pandemic.”
Assembly members also passed four new measures that included allowing licensing boards to reactivate the licenses of certain people during an emergency, permit remote instruction to count toward the required 180 days that school districts need to offer to receive state aid, allow notaries to work remotely and let the state extend certain deadlines for municipalities and counties. These must now go to the Senate for consideration.
Barking dogs, chirping children
The session was both modern and a throwback to the days before electronics and featured some of the same hiccups those familiar with teleconferencing would recognize, including phones that would not mute or unmute, barking dogs, children chorusing votes of “yes,” and the sound of a blender as someone made a smoothie or other drink.
Normally, the Assembly meets in a bright, large room with a balcony for public viewing and, on the floor, wooden desks with a microphone and buttons allowing each member to record their votes. Voting typically takes no more than a few seconds, depending on how controversial a bill is and how many bills are on the agenda, with members’ votes displayed immediately on an electronic board listing everyone’s names and the total tally.
Wednesday’s session was held via conference call, with more than 80 individuals participating and each one called by name to cast a vote. Each member was given a passcode to gain entry to the call. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) was in what he termed “an eerily empty Assembly chamber.” The Assembly balcony was open to the press, and members of the public could also listen in via the Office of Legislative Services’ normal website link.
The session started off a little rocky, with confusion over whether members’ phones were muted, prompting Coughlin to ask that everyone’s phone lines be unmuted.
‘A little choppy’
“We anticipated that this would be a little choppy,” he said.
The roll call took some 14 minutes, but the votes on bills went more smoothly and without opposition. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the Republican leader in the lower house, said now is not the time for party divisions, but to “act as one unified voice” for the good of the state.
“Today, as we meet remotely for the first time in history, it’s clear we face a serious health threat,” he said. “This is not the time to play partisan politics or to rely on opinions not based on science. Those of you out there who continue to snipe on social media, just stop it and do something positive for mankind. The people of New Jersey expect us to lead and lead together.”
Terming the current pandemic perhaps the “most serious” situation the state has faced in its history, given the shortage of equipment for health care workers and inability of many residents to pay their bills, Bramnick added that everyone should be working together.
“All of us should be asking one question and one question only: How can we help?” he said. “I am very proud the way this body has come together.”
Coughlin agreed, saying, “We ought to be proud of the work we have done together as a body in recognizing that which is important to the people of New Jersey, coming together to overcome whatever challenges are there.“
The remote sessions are important for lawmakers, in particular, because many members are in at least one of the at-risk categories — age 60 or older. On the Senate side, a majority of members are at least over 60, with 12 in their 70s or 80s. Assembly members tend to be younger, but at least 30 of the 80 members are age 60 or older, with eight or more in their 70s or 80s.
At least one lawmaker has been infected. Assemblyman Clinton Calabrese (D-Bergen), 34, announced last Saturday that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and was self-quarantining.
It’s unclear when the Senate might meet, most likely remotely, to consider these and possibly other bills.
These are the other measures the Assembly passed Wednesday:
- A-3904 would require all virtual instruction and remote learning to count toward the 180-day instruction requirement for all school districts during extended emergency closures.
- A-3901 would expedite the reactivation of retired or inactive medical professionals by allowing professional boards to more quickly reinstate the licenses of those who were in good standing when retiring or becoming inactive, and temporarily waive licensing fees and continuing education requirements.
- A-3903 would allow a notary to notarize documents provided by someone who appears remotely, via computer or telephone app, provided the notary knows the person or sees proof of an individual’s identity.
- A-3902 would give the head of the state Division of Local Government Services wide authority to extend deadlines local governments typically must meet and allow municipalities to extend grace periods for property tax and other municipal payments.