TRENTON — Tens of thousands of state workers are expected to be furloughed this week as New Jersey’s government shutdown entered its second day Sunday without a budget deal in sight.
Gov. Christie, who flew by state helicopter to and from Trenton this weekend to the governor’s residence at the closed Island Beach State Park, told reporters Sunday that “I’m a little frustrated, quite frankly at this point, that no one will send me any budget.”
To try to break the impasse, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) called for Robert Marino, CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, to meet with him at 1 p.m. Monday at the Statehouse. Marino said he would attend the meeting.
“Here’s another day wasted,” Sweeney told reporters Sunday.
Christie, a Republican, has conditioned his support for Democrats’ spending priorities in their $34.7 billion budget on the Legislature’s passage of a bill that would restructure Horizon, the state’s largest insurance company, and require the company to dedicate “excess” surplus to policyholders and public health programs.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) has refused to post that bill for a vote, calling it “extortion” and a “tax” on the insurer’s policyholders. As a result, some Democrats would not vote to pass the budget, because they don’t want Christie to veto additional school funding and other programs.
While state parks were closed to the public, Christie said at a news conference at the governor’s office in Trenton on Sunday that he joined his family at Island Beach State Park this weekend, traveling by the taxpayer-funded state helicopter.
“I traveled there, and I traveled back, and I’ll travel back again by helicopter,” Christie said. “That’s where my family is sleeping, so that’s where I’ll sleep tonight. When I have a choice between sleeping with my family or sleeping alone, I generally like to sleep where my family is.”
The governor said there were no lifeguard or trash pickup services for his family. He would not say whether his family was able to swim without lifeguards present.
The shutdown began at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. The state constitution does not provide for short-term spending measures, meaning it must pass a budget for fiscal year 2018 for the government to reopen and provide full services.
Although Christie had called a special session Sunday, few lawmakers were present at the Statehouse. In the Assembly, where a voting session had technically been underway since Friday night, one lawmaker (Democratic Assemblyman James Kennedy) changed his vote on the budget to yes, bringing the number of yes votes to 27, but leaving the spending bill still 14 votes short. Most of those lawmakers likely will not change their minds without Christie’s support.
“I think the dominoes will come down. Trust me,” said Prieto, who remained adamant Sunday that he would not post the Horizon bill to be passed as part of a budget deal.
Addressing reporters on the Assembly floor, Prieto said some Assembly lawmakers “have an idea of crafting something” regarding Horizon, but he did not offer details of the alternate bill. He said he would be open to holding hearings in the next two weeks.
Christie called that a “fake, phony offer,” saying that Prieto had not committed himself to actually passing any legislation and that lawmakers likely would not return to Trenton over the summer. “He needs to stop pouting and start leading,” Christie said. (Prieto called Christie’s speech Saturday urging lawmakers to back the Horizon legislation “shameful.”)
At a separate news conference Sunday, Sweeney demanded a meeting with Horizon CEO Marino, Prieto, and Sen. Joe Vitale (D., Middlesex), who wrote the legislation that would establish a process by which the state would “determine an appropriate, efficient surplus range” for Horizon.
Sweeney said neither he nor Vitale had been able to get hold of Marino in recent days.
“I want to bring this to a head,” Sweeney said. “Let’s get in a room and get something done.”
A Horizon spokesman said Marino would “absolutely attend the meeting and 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 health care coming from Washington.”
Spokesman Kevin McArdle added that “the last time Horizon leadership had a meeting in the State House it was an extortion attempt.” Christie first proposed tapping Horizon’s reserves during his budget address in February.
Prieto also said he would attend.
Horizon says it had $2.4 billion in reserve at the end of 2016. Under the bill that passed the Senate last week, if Horizon’s surplus were to exceed the “efficient” range, it would be required to submit a plan to the state to dedicate “excess” surplus to benefit its 3.8 million policyholders and “improve the overall health status of all New Jersey residents.”
A spokesman for Christie said Sunday that 30,000 to 35,000 state workers were expected to be furloughed. The governor has said they would not receive back pay.
State parks, motor vehicle offices, and other services deemed nonessential will remain closed.
Essential services such as the State Police, prisons, and the lottery will continue to operate.
Under state law, casinos and horse-racing tracks will stay open for seven days. Christie said he had asked the attorney general to review whether the governor may be able to extend that period.
Sweeney said he had “heard rumors that people were betting they’re going to take us to where we have a casino shutdown because then I’ll blink. This isn’t a game of chicken.”