In the earliest days of the coronavirus crisis, Republican and Democrats joined together in a show of bipartisanship. The result was a package of bills aimed at softening the blow of the crisis, many of which were signed by the governor. But, this is New Jersey and bipartisanship can be somewhat fleeting.
Philosophical divides still exist even in the age of COVID-19 and nowhere was that more evident than in the pushback to Gov. Phil Murphy’s decision that gun shops were non-essential business. When he was confronted with the question by a gun rights activist posing as a journalist Murphy seemed to be taken off guard.
“I have no issue with the second amendment, and I have no issue with your advocacy, but this is a press availability and I want to just say that up front,” Murphy said at one of his daily press briefings on March 27.
But within a few days federal guidelines included gun shops as essential businesses and Murphy reluctantly complied. But before that decision, Republicans like Sen. Mike Testa of South Jersey were pushing the governor to reverse his decision.
“I look at this from a purely constitutional perspective,” he said. “My constituents did in fact reach out to me and say, ‘hey, wait a minute, there’s a pandemic, I can’t buy any ammunition.’ These are lawful gun owners. I want to be clear on that.”
“A lot of the constituents reached out to me and said, Michael, we want you to do something on this. So I responded and just said, ‘hey listen, I think that gun stores, just like our neighboring state of Pennsylvania, should be deemed essential,'” Testa continued.
But, it’s more than just gun shops. It’s car dealerships that Republicans, and even some Democrats, say should be open. And an order releasing some low-level inmates from county jails to slow the spread of COVID-19, had Republicans objecting strongly.
Declan O’Scanlon said the executive branch and the judiciary were “scheming” to release a thousand prisoners.
“Look, there was no outreach to the Legislature. Our system of government is designed so that each branch of government, the executive, legislative and judiciary have defined roles,” O’Scanlon said. “The judiciary and the executive branch decided to simply overrule a law enacted by the Legislature. There’s a concern there.That shouldn’t happen but in very rare circumstances. And here there was an attempt to let folks out of jail who certainly should not have been let out of jail, so on several levels I had a beef.”
Even the decision to go ahead with hearings on toll increases has come under fire. Despite objections from Republicans like Chris Brown who said the toll hike — a proposed 40% on the Atlantic City Expressway — was being slipped in under the cover of a crisis. Those hearings were expected to go on as scheduled Wednesday and Thursday, although some lawmakers are holding out hope that the governor will intervene and put a hold on the hikes, if not the hearings.
State Republicans say despite their differences, Murphy has been handling the crisis well and has been responsive to them. One lawmaker said the differences are real but there’ll be time to talk about them once the crisis is over.