Assembly passes flurry of bills, but not one extending Murphy’s pandemic powers

Saying only that he wants the ‘fairest and most responsible bill,’ Assembly speaker declines to post measure that would continue the powers governor has wielded during COVID-19

The New Jersey Assembly on Thursday passed dozens of bills, many of them related to the COVID-19 pandemic. But they held off on a measure that would have enabled Gov. Phil Murphy to retain many of the broad powers he has used over the past 14 months, while allowing the current state of emergency to expire.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin announced he would not be posting the bill as the Assembly session was just about to begin, saying he wanted to see some changes to ensure it was “the fairest and most responsible bill possible.”

“I am committed to ending the public health emergency,” Coughlin said. “This is extremely important legislation that we must get right.”

Meanwhile, five bills designed to improve safety and conditions for inmates in state prisons in response to problems at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women cleared the lower house.

Lawmakers approved six bills that would provide $235 million in financial relief to an assortment of businesses, including bars and restaurants, nonprofits, child care centers, small businesses and startups. The money would be paid out of state funds in addition to more than $200 million in federal relief aid already distributed.

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Saving NJ’s small businesses

The New Jersey Business & Industry Association supports all the bills, stating that the number of small businesses open in the state is 35% lower than in January 2020 and that more than half the businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector have been lost.

All six passed in bipartisan votes with no opposition and now head to the Senate for further consideration.

The Assembly also approved two measures designed to improve the way long-term care facilities deal with infectious disease outbreaks. One (A-4855) would require the state Department of Health to assess current policies regarding infection control and prevention and develop a state plan to improve them. The other (A-4430) revises the requirements for long-term care facilities’ outbreak-response plans. These changes were recommended by an outside consultant the state engaged as a result of the thousands of COVID-19 deaths that occurred in long-term care settings.

In addition, Assembly members voted to concur with Murphy’s conditional vetoes of several COVID-19-related bills, including one that would set up a task force on racial and health disparities related to the coronavirus (A-4004). Another measure would establish a system for the state’s approval of personal protective equipment during a health emergency and management of a PPE stockpile (A-4803).

Not posted: Bill extending Murphy’s broad powers

Noteworthy was the decision by Coughlin (D-Middlesex) not to post A-5777, which would allow Murphy to retain many of the broad powers he used to control the pandemic. Among the orders that would remain in effect until Jan. 1, 2022, are those related to face coverings, evictions, utility shutoffs, vaccines, rule-making and hospital data reporting. Other orders would expire within 30 days of the legislation being enacted, according to the bill.

As the session was ending, Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) attempted to get the house to consider his bill that would limit all Murphy’s executive actions to 14 days unless approved by lawmakers. The Democratic majority tabled that effort.

The Assembly also advanced measures to address the continuing problem of sexual assaults at the state’s only women’s prison, as well as to improve the treatment of inmates throughout the corrections system. Key provisions of the package include a requirement that all corrections officers wear body cameras, mandatory training on sexual harassment and assault and making it a crime for a guard to retaliate against an inmate who reports an assault. Another measure that passed seeks to increase the use of halfway houses in the state. All the bills passed with bipartisan support and now head to the Senate for further consideration.

READ: Package of reform legislation spurred by abuse at women’s prison advances

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