TRENTON — The Assembly moved one vote closer to passing a budget on Sunday, but state leaders remain miles apart in brokering a deal to end the government shutdown that will soon be felt by more than 30,000 state workers and millions of residents.
Gov. Chris Christie, Senate President Stephen Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto spent the second day of the government shutdown holding dueling press conferences, with Prieto and Christie once again trading insults and attacks. Sweeney called on Robert Marino, the CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, the state’s largest insurer, to attend a meeting with Democratic party leaders on Monday. Marino accepted, although a spokesman said the last such meeting was a $300 million "extortion attempt."
The 1 p.m. meeting, which Prieto has agreed to attend, is currently the best and possibly only hope of ending the political and fiscal stalemate that has ground Trenton to a halt.
Officially, the budget vote in the Assembly, which has remained open since 7:17 p.m. Friday night, gained another "yes" vote from Assemblyman James Kennedy. He said he was moved to change his vote after Christie’s address to the Legislature on Saturday, which focused almost exclusively on Horizon and not the state budget.
The governor has said he is willing to sign a budget if lawmakers send him the bill to restructure Horizon. Without it, he has threatened to cut as much as $350 million in Democratic spending priorities from the budget.
Prieto has refused to post the Horizon bill in the Assembly as part of the budget negotiations and Sweeney has refused to entertain a budget without a deal on Horizon. The crucial difference is that Sweeney has the support of his caucus, while Prieto is overseeing a house in revolt. Almost half of the Assembly’s 52 Democrats continue to abstain or oppose the budget after 72 hours.
The Horizon bill, authored by Sen. Joe Vitale, would give the state some control over Horizon’s $2.4 billion capital reserves, redefine its mission as charitable, create three new policyholder-elected board members and make it the insurer of “last resort.” Horizon has fought the changes with a massive public relations and lobbying push.
Sweeney said Sunday that the insurer had ignored overtures by Vitale and himself to negotiate.
"This isn’t a game of chicken, we’re playing with people’s lives," he said. "The only way this is going to be resolved is with the principals in the room."
Christie, who followed Sweeney with his own press conference, reverted back to calling for a budget, and chided Prieto for suggesting there could be a deal on Horizon after the budget was passed. Prieto has offered to schedule a committee hearing on Horizon following the budget.
"[Assembly members] are not coming back here in an election year, in the middle of summer, to hold hearings,” Christie said, adding that Prieto simply offered to hold hearings but did not commit to getting a bill passed. “It’s a fake, phony offer, which we know based on our experience he won’t fulfill.”
Christie said the Monday meeting was a positive step, but used it as a cudgel against Prieto.
“I don’t even think it even matters if the speaker’s there or not. Bob Marino’s the guy calling the shots,” he said.
Prieto, having watched the governor’s press conference, followed up with his own at the last minute, disputing what he called Christie’s “alternative facts” and again blaming the governor for using Horizon as a bargaining tool.
“The Assembly is the only one trying to pass a budget to get government going again,” he said. ”I will not be bullied into doing something that’s not good for the state of New Jersey.
Christie has opened the door to accepting another compromise in exchange for Horizon, but nothing serious has been presented to the Democratic caucus, Prieto said. He said Christie’s willingness to trade priorities showed there was no urgency in getting a deal on Horizon.
“If you’re telling me he’d take something else, then what’s the big deal with Horizon?” Prieto told reporters.
Amid the stalemate, contours of what a deal might look like have begun to emerge. Prieto said he was willing to entertain capping Horizon’s reserves as long as the money goes back to ratepayers.
Sweeney said a direct rebate would be difficult, if not impossible.
“Creating a category where it would go against rate increases, where everyone would be treated equally across the board, makes a hell of a lot more sense,” he said.
The meeting and the discussion of the bill represented progress from Saturday but the test will be Monday’s meeting with Horizon.
Christie has called the Legislature in at 10 a.m. Lawmakers largely ignored the governor’s directive on Sunday though, with only a handful of Assembly members showing up in Trenton and virtually no senators.
This week, especially after the holiday, is when the shutdown will begin to have a greater impact. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner issued an order Sunday closing all state courts except for “emergent court matters.”
Christie said about 30,000 to 35,000 state employees will be furloughed starting Monday, the first work day since the shutdown began.
And if the budget impasse isn’t resolved soon, casinos and tracks could also be forced to close.
Christie said the state attorney general’s office will investigate whether he has the authority to keep the venues open beyond Friday. Current law, passed after a shutdown in 2006, allows them to stay open an extra seven days after the government shuts down.
“An initial reading of the statute is that it’s a seven-day extension beyond the day of the closure for casinos and horseracing tracks,” Christie said. “But whether there are some exceptions that can be made or something else through an executive order, or some other action by the governor, [the attorney general] was looking into that.”
At just before 6 p.m. on Sunday evening, the Statehouse once again was abandoned.