By John Celock
Laying blame at the feet of the state Assembly speaker and New Jersey’s largest health insurance company, NJ Gov. Chris Christie (R) Saturday called for the end of the state’s budget impasse and government shutdown.
Christie used an address to a joint session of the Legislature to say that he was looking to bring increased transparency to Horizon Blue Cross/Blue Shield, along with pushing the insurance company to fund opioid addiction treatment, the governor’s top cause. He said that Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto’s (D-Secaucus) decision not to negotiate on the Horizon legislation or post it for a vote has led to a failure to pass a budget and shut the government down at midnight.
“One person, the Assembly Speaker has refused his members the right to vote on a piece of legislation that has bipartisan support and he refuses to discuss this,” Christie said.
The address occurred in the state Senate chamber, a rare move, because Christie said that Prieto closed the Assembly chamber down for the joint session. He said that state Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) allowed for Christie to address lawmakers in the Senate chamber. Prieto was not present in the Senate chamber for Christie’s speech. Christie has vowed to call lawmakers back to Trenton daily until a budget is passed.
Christie spent much of the speech laying the blame with Prieto and Horizon, saying that the insurance company’s lobbying and public relations campaign – which he deemed misinformation – has caused the shutdown. He said that he was simply trying to bring more transparency to the company, which was founded as a non-profit under state law. He said this would include pushing Horizon to focus on a charitable mission and accounting for the company’s profits.
Christie said that Horizon was using state Medicaid funds in an effort to increase profits and increase executive bonuses. He also said that he wanted to find out how much Horizon was spending on public relations and lobbying efforts.
Christie said that the bill did not contain a controversial provision that would allow him to sweep up to $300 million from Horizon’re reserve fund, a move that the company has said will cause rate hikes. The bill does include a series of ways the state can take surplus funds from the company.
“There is no slush fund and there is no money grab,” Christie said. “You will not find a reference to the government taking $300 million. It is not in there. It was never in there.”
Christie said that he wants to make sure that Horizon focuses more attention on the state’s opioid crisis, including a new state fund – funded by Horizon – to cover treatment programs. Christie has made opioid addiction his signature issue in his final year in office.
The Horizon bill is opposed by Prieto, a group of state Assembly Democrats aligned with Prieto, the business community, organized labor, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Phil Murphy and Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. The bill is backed by South Jersey Democrats, Assembly speaker hopeful Craig Coughlin (D-Woodbridge), Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Voorhees) and Sweeney The bill has already passed the state Senate.
Christie has said that wants a version of the Horizon bill passed in order to pass the state budget, which said is not perfect to him but a result of compromise. He said that Prieto has refused to compromise on Horizon and walked out of a meeting with Christie and legislative leaders on Friday. On Friday, the Assembly voted 26-25-24 on the budget, with largely South Jersey and Middlesex County Democrats abstaining. Forty one votes are needed to pass the budget.
The impasse and shutdown plays out as Prieto battles Coughlin to keep the speakership starting in January. Coughlin has assembled a campaign to unseat Prieto based on a deal struck by Democratic leaders to keep South Jersey based Sweeney as Senate president while moving the speakership to Coughlin, a Middlesex County lawmaker, away from Prieto, who hails from Hudson County in North Jersey.
Since Democrats took control of the Assembly in 2002, speakers have traditionally served for four years. Prieto is currently in his fourth year in office but Sweeney’s tenure at the helm of the Senate has kept the speakership in North Jersey under Prieto and his predecessor, Democrat Sheila Oliver of Essex County. A Coughlin speakership would give Central Jersey a top spot in Trenton. Both Murphy and Guadagno hail from Monmouth County, along the Jersey Shore.
The Democratic deal would likely award the lieutenant governor spot on Murphy’s ticket to a North Jersey candidate. Murphy has not made an announcement over who he will tap for lieutenant governor.
This is only the second government shutdown in New Jersey history. The first occurred in 2006, when then Gov. Jon Corzine (D) and legislative Democrats could not agree on pension reforms. That shutdown, which lasted nine days, helped position Christie to defeat Corzine in 2009. Corzine called lawmakers into session each of the days and used a joint session to berate lawmakers for not passing a budget. It is unclear if Christie has similar plans.
Christie has been quick to blame the entire shutdown at the feet of Prieto, while Prieto is blaming Christie. Christie on Saturday described the Horizon fight as a Davis vs. Goliath like battle between him and the health insurance giant. He said that his standing as a term limited governor enables him to take on the fight. At the same time he said that while he has compromised on issues such as school finance reform, he will not give in to Horizon.
“I have compromised. I have listened,” Christie said. “I want to be clear to all of you. I will not capitulate to the high priced lobbyist smear campaign.”