TRENTON, NJ – Senator Declan O’Scanlon said Governor Phil Murphy has wielded immense powers through emergency declarations during the COVID-19 pandemic and demonstrated why the Legislature must limit executive authority and establish effective oversight.
“As we’ve learned over the past two years, the Governor of New Jersey has an astonishing amount of power under state law once they declare a State of Emergency or a Public Health Emergency,” said O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth). “They can shut down schools and businesses, force people to stay home, and mandate compliance with an unimaginable breadth of orders and directives that impact all facets of life. There’s absolutely no requirement that an emergency declaration not continue in perpetuity or any provision that the Legislature must provide oversight of executive orders. Many New Jerseyans agree it’s simply too much power for one person to wield.”
O’Scanlon said this unfettered authority provides no incentive for an ambitious Governor to give up the broad power that comes with emergency declarations to set policy without oversight or to seek compromise on important matters with legislators.
“During the pandemic, the Legislature has been completely emasculated by a Governor who has no intention of relinquishing emergency powers that should have terminated long ago,” O’Scanlon continued. “Other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, realized the danger of excessive executive authority and passed legislation limiting the emergency powers of their governors. It has been clear for more than a year that New Jersey must do the same.”
O’Scanlon pointed to Governor Murphy’s circumvention of an agreement with Democratic legislative leaders that should have resulted in the expiration of various emergency powers this week. When the Legislature chose not to advance a resolution extending those powers, the governor acted unilaterally to declare a new Public Health Emergency.
“It’s unclear if Governor Murphy had the authority to declare a new Public Health Emergency that essentially grants himself the same powers the Legislature allowed to expire,” said O’Scanlon. “What is clear, however, is that New Jersey’s emergency power laws are so vague and broadly written that the Governor risks little by making a new declaration to claim the extra power he wants. That’s why we need to fix our laws to set explicit new limits on emergency powers and ensure the Legislature has a strong oversight role.”
Under current law, a State of Emergency can remain in effect until terminated by the Governor, and a Public Health Emergency can be declared for 30 days with subsequent 30-day extensions issued at the Governor’s sole discretion.
O’Scanlon is drafting legislation that requires both States of Emergency and Public Health Emergencies to expire unless the Legislature votes to approve an extension at certain intervals that are to be determined.
If an emergency declaration is not affirmatively extended by the Legislature, the Governor would be prohibited from issuing another declaration for the same emergency or that has a substantially similar effect.
“Whether you agree or disagree with Governor Murphy’s declaration of a new Public Health Emergency, you should support having checks and balances in government that can prevent abuses of power,” added O’Scanlon. “I’ve heard my Democrat colleagues in the Legislature and the Governor all say in recent days that they want to work together to move New Jersey beyond the pandemic. Both the Governor and legislative leadership say they want to work together. They can prove it by passing this bill which will force the executive and legislative branches to share information and negotiate the extension of emergency powers on a case by case basis.”