Christie, Prieto trade blame: Governor says crisis 'pointless,' speaker sees 'extortion'

Posters outside the governor's office in Trenton blame Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto for the shutdown.

TRENTON — Gov. Christie on Saturday framed New Jersey’s government shutdown as a battle against the state’s largest health insurer, exhorting lawmakers to support his push against what he cast as a profit-hording “machine” and resolve a budget impasse.

The shutdown, which began after lawmakers failed to pass a budget Friday amid a stalemate over the proposal to restructure Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey, left residents and visitors frustrated at the start of the holiday weekend. Services deemed nonessential were ordered closed, including Motor Vehicle Commission offices, and campers and beachgoers were turned away from state parks.

The stalemate stems from the Horizon proposal: Christie wants lawmakers to pass a bill requiring the insurer to develop a plan for allocating its “excess” surplus to help pay for drug treatment and other care of the poor and uninsured.

But Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson), has refused to consider that bill, which he has called a “Christie tax” on Horizon’s 3.8 million policyholders. As a result, Prieto couldn’t get enough Democratic votes to pass the budget — because Christie had pledged to line-item Democratic-backed spending if lawmakers didn’t pass the Horizon bill.

Returning Saturday to Trenton, where he called lawmakers in for a special session, Christie blasted Prieto, repeatedly referring to the “speaker’s shutdown” during a news conference. “It’s embarrassing and pointless,” Christie said.

The governor has called another special session at 2 p.m. Sunday, although it’s unclear whether any vote will be taken. The Assembly is technically still in session from its failed attempt to pass a budget Friday night.

But Christie also on Saturday defended his decision to push the Horizon legislation, calling it a “transparency and accountability fight” during an afternoon speech to lawmakers in the Senate chambers.

“Let me tell you what we’re really fighting for in this debate. It’s not just words on a page. Believe me, it’s not just politics,” Christie said. “We are fighting for the mother and father wracked with grief over their child who is drug-addicted, but unable to get Horizon to pay for his treatment through the policy they paid for … We are fighting for the middle-aged carpenter, who pays a fortune already for his health insurance to Horizon, then watches them increase his premiums each and every year.”

Christie said the bill was not an “evil proposal” or “a government takeover,” and noted that provisions for Horizon to spend its excess surplus wouldn’t take effect until after his term ends in January.

“I have compromised,” Christie said. “But I want to be clear to all of you. I will not capitulate to the high-paid lobbyists’ smear campaign.”

He urged Prieto to “come to the table and end these political games.”

Horizon fired back at Christie after the speech, accusing the governor of “resorting again to bullying and distortions to retaliate” against opposition to raiding the company’s reserves.

“Not once in the previous seven years has the governor raised any issue in response to the many audits, annual reviews or thousands of pages of detailed financial filings that have been publicly filed including those detailing compensation information and lobbying expenses,” said Horizon spokesman Kevin McArdle. He noted the company’s A rating from Standard and Poor’s, and argued that given a potential health care overhaul in Washington, “Trenton shouldn’t be adding to the uncertainty and making health care more expensive and less accessible.”

Earlier Saturday, Prieto dubbed the shutdown “the Chris Christie hostage crisis,” calling it “unconscionable” that Christie was tying his commitment to sign the Democratic budget to passage of the Horizon legislation.

“It’s extortion,” Prieto told reporters. The speaker reiterated that he would consider proposals to address Horizon’s surplus after the budget is passed — but not beforehand.

Prieto said the shutdown wasn’t his fault, noting that he had posted the budget for a vote Friday. The speaker left the voting board open overnight, after failing to garner enough votes from fellow Democrats in the Assembly, some of whom are refusing to pass the budget without a deal that Christie won’t slash spending.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester), flanked by dozens of fellow Democrats from both houses, said Saturday it was imperative that an additional $150 million in school funding be included in the budget. Passing the Horizon legislation would ensure Christie keeps that budget language, Sweeney said.

“It’s time for leadership, not being a martyr,” Sweeney said in a thinly veiled shot at Prieto.

Christie was doing his part to assign blame. Outside the governor’s office, signs taped to the windows facing Trenton featured a photo of Prieto with the message: “This Facility is CLOSED Because of this Man.” Christie said he authorized the printing of 500 of the signs.

While state parks were shut down, Christie’s family was spending the weekend at the governor’s residence at Island Beach State Park.

He dismissed criticism that his family was accessing a park that others could not. “That’s just the way it goes,” Christie said at the news conference. “Run for governor and you can have the residence.”