By NIKITA BIRYUKOV
New Jersey Monitor

Republicans’ long-stalled push to investigate widespread COVID-19 deaths in New Jersey nursing homes got a boost after gaining a Democratic ally.

State Sen. Nia Gill, a Democrat from Montclair representing the 34th Legislative District, has taken up prime sponsorship of a resolution that would create the New Jersey Nursing Home Pandemic Response Investigation Committee, a select Senate panel endowed with subpoena powers.

“I said when I ran for Senate president that we had to work together, and this was one of the issues that we needed to address,” Gill told the New Jersey Monitor. “My concerns are the same, so I put it up and hope that the rest of the senators will support it.”

New Jersey’s long-term care centers were hit hard in the pandemic’s early months. About two years after the state’s first case of COVID-19, there have been 9,153 confirmed deaths among long-term care residents and staff, more than a quarter of the state’s 31,987 confirmed or probable virus deaths.

Montclair Local coronavirus tracker

Another 169 residents have died at three state-run veterans memorial homes, the vast majority in facilities in Menlo Park and Paramus.

Republicans have long sought to investigate Gov. Phil Murphy’s handling of COVID-19 in long-term care centers. In the early months of the pandemic, Murphy ordered nursing homes to readmit patients even if they were COVID positive, an action critics have said amounted to a death sentence for New Jersey’s elderly. The Murphy administration has stressed they told nursing homes to separate residents who were infected from those who weren’t.

State Sen. Joe Pennacchio (R-Morris), who signed onto Gill’s resolution as a co-prime sponsor, has repeatedly pushed a measure to create a Senate body with powers similar to those granted by Gill’s resolution, but those efforts were stalled by opposition in the Democratic-led Legislature.

“I’m hoping that it’s a bipartisan effort,” Pennachio said of Gill’s measure. “All along the administration was saying, ‘We will investigate this after the pandemic’s over.’ Quite frankly, I find that a very specious argument.”

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Administration officials have noted that in May 2020, they tapped consulting firm Manatt Health to draft a series of recommendations to improve care at its long-term care centers. Less than a month later, the firm recommended the state establish stricter infection control plans, raise worker pay to address staff shortages, and increase state oversight of the industry.

A spokesperson for the governor declined to comment on Gill’s resolution, which faces a rocky road to the Senate floor.

Though it has gained a Democratic sponsor, the resolution must still be brought up for a vote in the Senate Health, Human Services, and Senior Citizens Committee.

That won’t happen without the approval of committee chair Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex), and it’s unlikely it will reach the floor without the approval of Senate President Nicholas Scutari (D-Union). In a statement, Scutari did not express support.

“There will be an appropriate time to review the state’s entire response, but the goal should not be to play ‘Monday morning quarterback,'” Scutari said. “Instead, we need to evaluate and learn from such an unprecedented crisis that affected the lives of everyone and led to a tragic loss of life worldwide so we are prepared for the future.”

Vitale did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Gill, who has often broken with legislative leadership and her caucus in the past, said she had discussed the select committee resolution with Senate colleagues during her unsuccessful bid for Senate president, adding she would have “whatever necessary conversations” to advance the bill.

Pennachio said he would first work on ensuring members of his caucus were aligned behind the resolution before turning to the upper chamber’s Democratic members.

“However I can lend myself to appeal to the better angels of the Democrats’ nature, I’ll be happy to do it,” he said. “I think it may be a little more forceful — and she is very forceful — coming from Sen. Gill.”

If the resolution doesn’t win the Senate president’s support, its supporters could still force a vote before the full chamber, but that process is anything but easy and would inevitably require they win the support of at least four more Democrats.

Because Gill’s resolution has already been referred to the health committee, it can’t be brought to a floor call vote unless legislators first pass a motion to relieve the committee of the resolution by simple majority vote.

A motion to relieve a committee of a bill or resolution can’t be made until 60 days have passed since the legislation was referred to the panel, meaning not until at least April 11.

If the motion to relieve passes, lawmakers can call a motion to make the resolution the order of the day. If the second motion gets to 21 votes, the resolution must be considered regardless of whether it appears on the Senate’s board list.

None of that matters unless the resolution’s supporters can whip 21 votes. Still, while Democrats proved resistant to curtailing Murphy’s authority in the first 21 months of the pandemic, cracks have started to emerge in recent weeks.

In January, Democratic legislators declined to approve a joint resolution, requested by the governor, extending a series of pandemic-related administrative orders after the governor signaled he intended to unilaterally prolong the state’s school mask mandate.

Later in January, Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth) joined as a prime sponsor a Republican bill that would allow public health emergency and state of emergency declarations issued by the governor to lapse unless extended by the Legislature. Gopal’s Democratic running mates lost re-election in November, making his district the only one in the state represented by a Democrat and two Republicans.

This story is provided by New Jersey Monitor, and originally appeared here