Senate President, Stephen Sweeney and New Jersey Governor, Chris Christie, speak to the press on day two of the government shutdown.
Kevin R. Wexler/NorthJersey.com
TRENTON, N.J. â€”Â “Another day wasted” is how a top lawmakerÂ described efforts Sunday to end New Jersey’s government shutdown, whose impact is likely to be felt even more widely Monday with the furloughing of as many as 35,000 state workers.
WithÂ all non-essential services shutteredÂ across the state amid a politicalÂ impasse over the fiscal year 2018 budget, Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature’s two top Democrats once againÂ hosted competing news conferences full of demands but few signs of progress.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who had declared Sunday “wasted” as of 2:30 p.m. ET, even claimed that his requests for meetings with Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and the CEO of Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the man and the company at the center of the shutdown, were being ignored.
“Weâ€™re not going to accomplish anything unless we get in a room and talk,” Sweeney said after publicly demandingÂ that Horizon CEO Bob Marino meet with him in the State HouseÂ on Monday. Marino later said he would attend.
Christie, meanwhile, arrived in Trenton on Sunday on a taxpayer-funded state police helicopter that he had taken from the governor’s official retreat atÂ Island Beach State Park, where his family hasÂ been staying over the weekend even though the parkÂ is closed to the public as part of the shutdown.
During an afternoon news conference at which he saidÂ Marino has an â€œabsolute obligationâ€ to meet with Sweeney to try to hammer out a compromise, ChristieÂ also told reporters he intended to fly back to the park later Sunday.Â
â€œI traveled there and I traveled back and Iâ€™ll travel back again by helicopter,â€ he said. â€œThatâ€™s where my family is sleeping, so thatâ€™s where Iâ€™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.â€
A round-trip helicopter ride Christie took from the Trenton area to his son’s baseball game in Montvale in 2011 cost $2,500, which was split betweenÂ ChristieÂ and the state Republican Party.Â But taxpayers typically pick up the cost of the governor’s routine travel in the helicopter.Â
The government shutdown, the first in more than a decade, began Saturday after feuding factions in the Democratic-controlled Legislature could not reach a deal to send Christie aÂ $34.7 billion budgetÂ for his signature. The New Jersey Constitution requires that aÂ budget be signed into law by July 1, and the impasse prompted Christie toÂ close government.Â
Christie, a Republican, and Sweeney, a Democrat,Â have agreed on a budget deal that includes two pieces of legislation the governor favors, but Prieto, also a Democrat, has dug in against one of the bills.
The bill Prieto dislikes would change how the state regulates Horizon, the state’s largest insurer, potentially allowing the state to tap the company’s reserves to pay for public health programsÂ likeÂ drug treatment. PrietoÂ is aligned with Horizon and says the bill would likely result in rate increases for the insurer’s 3.8 million customers.
Prieto has already signed off on the other bill Christie wants, which wouldÂ shift lottery revenueÂ to the state’s fiscally troubled public employee pension system. But thus far, he has refusedÂ to post the Horizon bill for a vote.
Instead, Prieto has opened a vote on the Democrats’ $34.7 billion budget and has left the voting board open since Friday night. With about half the Democrats in the Assembly siding withÂ Christie and Sweeney, however, Prieto lacks the 41 votes needed to pass the budget.Â Those Democrats are willing to support the Horizon legislation in exchange for Christie’s assurance that he’ll sign a budget that includes an extra $350 million forÂ their party’s priorities.Â
Christie has said he will sign any budget that lands on his desk but will veto out the extra spending if the Legislature doesnâ€™t also send him the lottery and Horizon bills.Â
Either way, Christie’s signature on a budget would authorize the state to spend money and thereby end the shutdown.
The Governor and Assembly Speaker accuse each other of the NJ government shutdown.
Reaching a compromise on the Horizon bill that is palatable to both Prieto and Christie could be key to breaking the deadlock.Â
Before Sunday, Prieto was adamant that the Horizon bill should not be tied to the budget, arguing that he had already compromised with Christie enough by agreeing to pass the lottery legislation.
On Sunday, Prieto maintained that he wouldnâ€™t allow a Horizon bill to pass before a budget is passed. But he said he is working with some Assembly members to explore compromise legislation that the Legislature could consider immediately after a budget is passed, adding that he may support a bill that caps the company’s reserves and returns any excess to ratepayers.
“I look forward to the dialogue,” Prieto said.
Prieto said he also had an appointment to speak with Marino on Monday morning, and both men confirmed they would meet with Sweeney on Monday afternoon.
“Horizonâ€™s CEO Bob Marino will absolutely attend the meeting and looks forward to hearing how our concerns and the concerns voiced by New Jerseyâ€™s business, labor, and reform communities can be addressed, particularly with all the uncertainty about health care coming from Washington,” a Horizon spokesman said in a statement.
Christie provided another way out of the stalemateÂ Sunday when he said he is â€œopen to considering another piece of legislation in place of Horizon.”
But two pieces of legislation that have been floated as alternatives â€” one to allow governments toÂ forgo publishing legal notices in newspapersÂ and another toÂ cap payouts to public employeesÂ for unused sick timeÂ â€” are both politically unpalatable to many lawmakers and were rejected by Democratic members of the Assembly at a caucus meeting on Friday.
On Sunday, Prieto criticized Christie for even floating the idea.
“So if youâ€™re telling me that heâ€™ll take something else, then whatâ€™s the big deal with Horizon?” he said.
Shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday, Christie announced that he would again reconvene the Legislature on Monday morning “to consider the ongoing budget impasse.”
â€œThis is more about egos than policy now,” Sweeney said Sunday, “and the egos got to get checked at the door, mine included.â€
Follow Dustin Racioppi and Nichole Pugliese on Twitter:Â @dracioppi and @nickpugz
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