Following a weekend that saw more news conferences in the State House than progress made there, a budget impasse that has led to the first state government shutdown in over a decade will remain in effect for the start of the workweek.
The shutdown will keep tens of thousands of state workers off the job Monday. It will also prevent New Jersey residents from using in-person services at Motor Vehicle Commission agencies or visiting state parks on the eve of the July 4th holiday.
Gov. Chris Christie has summoned lawmakers to come back to the State House at 10 a.m. Monday, but it’s unclear now whether any progress will be made on the complicated budget impasse, which involves the fiscal year 2018 spending plan, but also other issues that have been dragged into the debate. They include the persistent underfunding of local school districts during Christie’s tenure and a call by the second-term Republican for changes to the way the state regulates Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, New Jersey’s largest health insurer.
Ignoring Christie’s Call
Many lawmakers ignored Christie’s call to come in for a special session to discuss the issue on Sunday, but Christie did come to Trenton, albeit by state police helicopter from a gubernatorial vacation home on Island Beach State Park, which has been off limits to taxpayers during the shutdown. Sunday’s overall lack of progress on enacting a fiscal 2018 budget keeps the shutdown in place under the state constitution.
Christie held a news conference in Trenton to discuss the impasse on Sunday afternoon, saying he cannot force lawmakers to send him a budget, which remains stalled in the Assembly even though Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) kept his house in session throughout the weekend in a bid win the 41 votes needed to move the spending bill along. (As of Sunday evening, there were only 27 votes for it.)
“The Legislature is making a choice here,” Christie said.
“If they sent me a budget today the shutdown would be over,” he said.
Threat of line-item vetoes
But Christie on Sunday also held firm to a key demand, saying again that he will only hold back his line-item veto pen and enact the Democrats’ budget bill unchanged if the Assembly passes legislation impacting Horizon, a company Christie that has repeatedly criticized on both financial and transparency fronts.
Christie, meanwhile, also dangled another alternative for ending the stalemate on Sunday, one that would involve Democrats agreeing to support a version of the fiscal 2018 budget that he put forward in late February. But that proposed spending plan doesn’t include roughly $150 million in additional aid for local schools and pre-K education, and some $31 million in reassigned aid to districts that are considered “underfunded” according to the state’s school-aid law. Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has made those education-funding changes a top priority in budget talks.
In fact, in the Senate, Democrats have already passed a Horizon measure that Christie has accepted as a compromise. But since that bill has not moved in the Assembly, Sweeney has yet to even post the Democrats’ budget for vote in his house .
Meeting of the minds
Sweeney on Sunday also held a news conference in the State House, calling for a meeting to be held on Monday with Prieto and Horizon CEO Bob Marino to try to work out any differences. By the end of the day, the Assembly leader and the insurance executive had agreed to get together on Monday.
“The only way to get this resolved is if we can get the principles all in a room,” Sweeney said.
Horizon spokesman Kevin McArdle said Marino “looks forward to hearing how our concerns and the concerns voiced by New Jersey’s business, labor, and reform communities can be addressed, particularly with all the uncertainty about healthcare coming from Washington.”
For his part, Prieto said during his own news conference on Sunday that he remains willing to discuss the Horizon issue. He also said some members of his caucus are working on a compromise bill.
Holding his position
But Prieto also kept to his position that no legislation on the Horizon issue would be passed until after a new budget is approved and goes into effect. He also faulted the Senate for passing its Horizon measure only days after it was introduced and after only one public hearing in a legislative committee was held.
“We need to do this the right way,” Prieto said. “We need to make sure we get this right.”
Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno — the GOP’s candidate for governor this year — also attempted to insert herself into the debate on Sunday by a calling for a compromise. She proposed legislation favored by Christie that would end payouts to public workers for unused sick and vacation time to be swapped in to the budget talks in favor of the Horizon bill since it seems to be the key sticking point.
“All sides should look to alternatives to end the shutdown so the people of New Jersey don’t have to suffer any longer,” Guadagno said in a statement.
Christie was asked during his news conference earlier in the day if he would be willing to consider another issue instead of the Horizon bill, and he said he would, as long as it represented progress on other issues he’s emphasized. Ending sick-time payouts is something Christie first called for in 2010 as part of a toolkit to curb increases in property taxes. Earlier this year, NJ Spotlight reported public workers across the state are owed nearly $2 billion for unused sick and vacation time.
But Prieto later faulted Christie, who has enthusiastically taken on the Horizon issue amid the budget debate, for now being willing to drop the Horizon issue altogether if he can score a “win” on another top priority like the sick-pay legislation.
“That makes it even more of an extortion,” Prieto said. “If you’re telling me you’ll take something else, then what’s the big deal about Horizon?”
NJ Spotlight, an independent online news service on issues critical to New Jersey, makes its in-depth reporting available to NewsWorks.