New Jersey Dems: We have a budget deal to end shutdown

Michael Catalini
Associated Press

Trenton, N.J. — New Jersey’s Democratic Senate president and Assembly speaker announced late Monday they had a budget deal to end the state’s government shutdown.

Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto unveiled the deal at a joint news conference on Monday at the statehouse. The deal calls for a $34.7 billion budget that includes more than $300 million in Democratic spending priorities and is part of an agreement to overhaul the state’s largest health insurer.

Sweeney said Republican Gov. Chris Christie had agreed to the deal, which could reopen state parks and beaches closed by the government shutdown. Christie was holding a news conference later.

The Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield legislation calls for annual audits of the nonprofit’s reserve level, sets a range for their reserves and requires excess to be spent on policyholders.

The budget stalemate centered on Christie’s desire for legislation to overhaul Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield as part of a deal to sign off on a budget including a series of Democratic priorities.

Prieto and Horizon chief executive Bob Marino met with Sweeney on Monday. Prieto and Marino said it was a “good meeting.”

State parks are shut down along with other nonessential state services, including state courts and the motor vehicle offices where people go to get driver’s licenses. Tens of thousands of state workers are furloughed until Christie signs off on a state budget.

Christie was catching heat Monday for spending time with his family over the weekend on a beach where he had blocked public access.

Here’s a closer look at the standoff over the budget:

Battle of egos

On the surface the budget stalemate revolved around Christie’s desire to overhaul Horizon, but also in play were the strong personalities of the three principals responsible for passing the budget.

Christie, the brash, tell-it-like-it-is former federal prosecutor, has staked his final year as governor on overhauling the nonprofit insurer in exchange for his support of more than $300 million worth of Democratic spending priorities.

Christie describes himself as “Mr. Reasonable” but wouldn’t waive his line item authority, which had some Democrats worried.

Sweeney is a former ironworker and current union boss as well as the top elected Democrat for the past eight years. He held the line on Horizon because he trusted Christie would make good on a gentleman’s agreement not to line item veto Democratic priorities.

And Prieto is a onetime plumber from Hudson County, long considered one of the state’s hardest-edged political regions, known for old-school party boss politics. Prieto’s speakership is under threat from another lawmaker who’s already announced a bid against him.

“Egos have to go out the door,” Sweeney said, adding there’s no place for drawing lines in the sand.

State workers furloughed

Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest union of state government workers, said roughly 35,000 workers have been “locked out” since the shutdown began.

While most of the furloughs took effect Monday, many parks, motor vehicle commission staffers and others who work weekends have been off the job since early Saturday.

Rosenstein said it’s unclear if furloughed workers will get back pay once the shutdown ends but “we certainly feel we’re entitled to that.”

Thomas Walker, of Hamilton Township, had planned to do some research at the state library in Trenton on Monday but was greeted by signs on the door stating it was closed.

“It’s not a big deal that I can’t do what I wanted to, but I hope these folks realize how much folks are inconvenienced by this mess,” he said.

Casinos at risk?

A 2008 law passed after the state’s last government shutdown allowed casinos to remain open for up to seven days of a government shutdown.

But lawmakers and regulators were looking for ways to prevent the casinos from having to shut down if the impasse continues beyond Friday just as they are regaining momentum after a disastrous three-year period that saw five of the 12 casinos shut down.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, an Atlantic City-area Democrat, introduced a bill that would let the casinos stay open throughout a state government shutdown.

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Associated Press writers Bruce Shipkowski, in Trenton, and Wayne Parry, in Atlantic City, contributed to this story.