TRENTON — Tired of waiting for the full Legislature to hold hearings on the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Senate Republicans plan to conduct their own focused on nursing home deaths, unemployment benefits and other topics.

Three or four online hearings are being planned, beginning March 5 with a focus on nursing homes. Sen. Joseph Pennacchio, R-Morris, said future hearings will analyze small business impacts, the governmental response at the Motor Vehicle Commission and labor department and education and school openings.

“The purpose is to do what the Legislature should have done the last year,” Pennacchio said. “You have to put sunshine. You have to vet. You have to ask tough questions. And you have to find out public policy: Was it good public policy? Was it bad? Could it be improved?”

Thirty-nine percent of lab-confirmed COVID-related deaths since March – or 7,831 of 20,004 – have been among residents and staff in long-term care facilities. A reported 30% of small businesses have permanently closed. And tens of thousands of people’s unemployment benefits have been delayed.

“My office, that’s all one person has done for the last year,” Pennacchio said of responding to problems obtaining unemployment benefits.

“Unemployment, you blame the computers, and yet you had all this CARES money. You could have got a whole brand-new system within a relatively short period of time to take of it,” he said. “You could have had CARES money paying for it. That type of leadership has got to be questioned.”

Some members of the general public will testify at the hearings, especially on nursing homes and business closures, Pennacchio said. Lawmakers are also trying to line up scientists, academics and doctors who can discuss the state’s policy directives.

Murphy administration officials are being invited to participate, as well.

“We’re holding up that olive branch to the administration, saying come testify. We will treat you with respect. Let us know what you did and why you did it,” Pennacchio said.

“They won’t disappoint me, because we’re expecting them not to testify,” he said. "But it’s important for us to ask them. The argument that this is a partisan committee is a specious argument for me because we had an agreement with the Senate leadership that we would have the committee, subpoena power. We never got that.”

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In May, Senate President Steve Sweeney and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. announced that the Senate would create a special Review and Recovery Committee, but the enabling resolution was never passed. Republicans tried three times to force a vote on the bill in the Senate, without success.

Senators did form an unofficial, bipartisan Senate Fiscal Recovery Strategists group that held six hearings between May and August on various economic impacts of COVID-related shutdowns and restrictions.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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