Christie projects calm on budget despite impasse over tapping Blue Cross funds

Christie
Gov. Christie speaks at a news conference in Trenton on Tuesday.

TRENTON — Gov. Christie on Tuesday suggested he was confident the state would pass a budget by its June 30 deadline, even as lawmakers squabble over a controversial proposal to tap reserve funds from the state’s largest health insurance company.

“I’ll keep my head about me, and we’ll get where we need to get to. We’ve gotten there every time on my watch,” Christie told reporters at a news conference here. “I don’t know what the path will be this time. But we’ve got like, what, another 72 hours or so? I’m not worried.”

Late Monday, the Senate and Assembly budget committees advanced a $34.7 billion spending proposal for fiscal year 2018. That’s slightly less than what Christie proposed in February, because it accounts for the governor’s plan to transfer the state lottery to the pension system, which reduces the amount the Legislature must appropriate from the general fund to retirement plans for government employees.

Christie, a Republican serving the last year of his second term, has told the Legislature’s Democratic leaders that he will agree to the broad outline of their school-funding deal and other spending priorities if they pass the lottery transfer and move forward with a plan to require Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield of New Jersey to dedicate “excess” surplus funds to health programs that would benefit policyholders and the public. That could include “substance-use disorder treatment and prevention,” the bill says. Christie had initially called in February for Horizon to establish a permanent fund for the poor and uninsured to receive drug treatment.

However, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) has expressed opposition to Christie’s Horizon idea, and the company’s allies have urged him to stand firm against it.

Christie has the constitutional authority to veto any line item in the budget.

Both houses of the legislature are scheduled to return to the Statehouse on Thursday to vote on the budget and other legislation.

The Senate Budget Committee on Monday advanced a version of the Horizon proposal, which would also make changes to the composition of the nonprofit company’s board, require greater financial disclosure, and designate Horizon as the state’s insurer of last resort. The legislation would take effect in February, after Christie leaves office.

The bill doesn’t define what constitutes “excess” surplus, but it establishes a process by which Horizon would establish an appropriate “range” of surplus. Horizon had $2.4 billion in capital reserves at the end of 2016.

Horizon and its allies continued to attack the proposal Tuesday, saying it amounted to a state takeover of a private company. Horizon says that setting aside “excess” surplus for the general public would force premium hikes on its 3.8 million policyholders.

The conservative group Judicial Watch — which successfully sued the State Department for access to emails regarding the Clinton Foundation — joined the fray, calling Christie’s proposal extortion. The group said it had filed a public-records request in New Jersey seeking correspondence regarding Horizon among Christie; George E. Norcross III, chair of Cooper University Health Care’s board; and Cooper executive Kevin O’Dowd.

O’Dowd is Christie’s former chief of staff. Cooper owns a stake in AmeriHealth, a Horizon competitor. Wendy Marano, a Cooper representative, said Cooper’s effective ownership in AmeriHealth was less than 1 percent. She said Judicial Watch’s claims were “fake news.”

Christie said Tuesday he didn’t want to comment on legislation before it reached his desk. But, he added, “it’s good to have this conversation. I’ve been trying to initiate this conversation for months and I’m glad we’re having it.”

Addressing criticism that he was singling out Horizon, Christie said the company was  “the only nonprofit insurer in the state.”

“They are unique,” he said, describing the insurer as a “creation of the state.”

“There’s no one else in their category,” he said.

He also lashed out at groups opposing the legislation, such as the state Chamber of Commerce, which he said were “bought and paid for” by Horizon.

“Horizon’s doing everything they can to try to be less accountable and less transparent,” the governor said.

Christie also weighed in on the health-care debate in Washington, before Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell announced he would delay a vote on the GOP’s legislation to replace Obamacare. Christie reiterated his concern about possible rollbacks to Medicaid, which he expanded in New Jersey under the Affordable Care Act, but said he wasn’t going to “set alarm bells off” yet.

“I’m not going to go down to Capitol Hill and pour gasoline on myself and light myself on fire,” he quipped to reporters. “I have lots of friends and contacts down there. I’ve expressed myself. … I don’t know what you want me to do — like, go and have a march on Washington?”