NJ government shutdown continues with no end in sight
TRENTON — The partial shutdown of New Jersey state government services will continue Sunday, with no end in sight.
Because the state’s new fiscal year began Saturday without a budget in place, Gov. Chris Christie ordered all nonessential services to close until a spending plan is approved. That includes state parks, including Island Beach State Park, and Motor Vehicle Commission agencies, among other offices. (See a comprehensive list here.)
Christie called a special session Saturday at the Statehouse, but the day of news conferences and speeches didn’t budge the logjam and, in fact, reflected sharper rhetoric, including Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto calling each other liars.
Christie told reporters there’s no prescribed end-date for the partial shutdown.
“It could be infinity. It could go right until I leave office,” Christie said. “No, there’s no constitutional cap on it. The cap is when the budget reaches my desk and state government can be funded constitutionally. That’s the cap.”
Christie said all the services that are going to close have already been announced. Other functions deemed essential will continue.
“Right now we can fund some of it through federal funding that we have that fund a lot of these programs, and some of them we’re going to have to run up a tab,” Christie said. “I can’t stop the State Police from operating. That’s why the constitution allows for exceptions to this rule to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people of the state.
“I’m not going to stop testing newborn infants for potential diseases and say to their parents, ‘Sorry, Vinnie Prieto’s having a hissy fit, so your child may have a disease but I can’t tell you about it and they can’t get treated,’” Christie said. “I mean, sorry, my job is to protect the health, safety and welfare of the people, so we’ll run up a tab.”
Prieto and Christie are battling over which of them is more to blame for the shutdown.
Two efforts to pass the budget have sputtered in the Assembly, where half of Prieto’s fellow Democrats are refusing to vote for the budget unless separate legislation impacting Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield is considered.
The bill overhauling the governance and finances of the not-for-profit health insurer isn’t part of the budget, but Christie has been calling for it since he included a different version of the plan in his budget speech in February.
Christie called the results of the impasse “the speaker’s shutdown.” Prieto called it “a Chris Christie hostage crisis.”
Prieto insists the Horizon changes can’t be rammed through now, but that he’d be willing to consider them later. He said committee hearings would start in three weeks.
“I would always be open, and I’ll make it clear now, to looking at a cap that would be sensible, but anything would then have to go back to the ratepayers that it rightfully belongs to. Outside of that, really, we would have to vet it and talk about it,” Prieto said.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who wants the Horizon bill in part because it would ensure that Christie wouldn’t use his line-item veto on the budget and delete $325 million in spending on Democratic priorities, said it does not make sense that Prieto won’t talk now about a bill he’s willing to deal with later.
“When I hear people say ‘I compromised,’ does that mean you can only compromise once because your ego gets in the way?” Sweeney said. “We want to have a compromise and put the people in front of egos. Enough now. We should not be here today. This should have not happened.”
Christie delivered a mid-afternoon speech to lawmakers, at Sweeney's invitation. The address was the first major one Christie has delivered in the Senate chamber in his seven and a half years as governor. Typically, speeches to joint sessions of the Legislature, like the State of the State and budget address, are held in the much-larger Assembly chamber.
“I’m usually in the Assembly chamber," Christie said at the start of his speech. "But the person who closed down the government on the people of New Jersey closed down the Assembly chamber to me.”
Prieto did not attend Christie's speech.
The 29-minute address, though ostensibly about passing a budget, was focused mostly on Horizon. Some of the governor's only comments on the budget bill itself came when Christie said he noted it contains spending added by Democrats -- around $325 million in a $34.7 billion blueprint -- he would normally delete through his line-item veto power.
He said he won't this year -- if the Horizon bill is passed.
“The budget bill that I agreed to sign contains elements that you know I don’t necessarily support because I’ve vetoed them year after year after year," Christie said.
“I agreed to accept what I consider to be an imperfect compromise in order to achieve progress in other areas," he said. "See, that is the nature of compromise. You don’t get everything you want, and you don’t really want everything you get.”
Christie aimed most of his remarks at Horizon and what he called its "systematic, well-funded disinformation campaign consisting of half-truths, untruths, exaggerations and scare tactics.”
In his budget speech Feb. 28, Christie called on Horizon to agree to provide the state annual payments from its reserve so the state could pay for public-health priorities such as opioid addiction treatment. He didn't specify a number in the speech, but it's generally assumed to be around $300 million.
The proposal that has now passed the Senate, but Prieto won't consider in the Assembly, wouldn't require a transfer. It would create a process through which the state would set an allowable range for Horizon's reserve, relative to its financial risk. If the reserve were to get too large, the insurer could be directed to divest it, perhaps through reducing rates or funding a health program. If it did not, the state could take what it deems excess.
The bill would also impose governance and transparency changes at Horizon, and it would re-establish the company's position as New Jersey's "insurer of last resort."
“The legislation has changed over the months, and here’s the reason it’s changed: Because I was willing to listen to others and to compromise with the people who sponsored this bill. The motivation behind this initiative, though, has not changed," Christie said.
The company says the proposal would lead to further rate increases and perhaps cost Horizon its membership in the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association. The latter could have an impact on people insured by Horizon because doctors in other states would become out-of-network.
“We feel sorry for Gov. Christie that, in the twilight of his failed tenure, Gov. Christie is resorting again to bullying and distortions to retaliate against Horizon’s 3.8 million policyholders for opposing his $300 million reserve raid that has been called a shakedown and extortion," said Horizon's public affairs manager, Kevin McArdle.
Christie -- whose approval ratings in public polls has dipped as low as 15 percent -- said he's willing to take the slings and arrows.
“I’m able to take this issue on at the end of my term because I’m never going to be on the ballot again, and I can afford to and I will take the political fallout of standing up to the all-powerful Horizon money and lobbying machine," he said.