Christie OK’d posters at government offices blaming speaker for shutdown. Is that legal?
TRENTON — They look sort of like wanted posters — and they're at shuttered government buildings throughout the state.
Gov. Chris Christie acknowledges he's the one who signed off on signs reading "Closed / This facility is closed because of this man / Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto." The speaker and the governor each blame the other for the budget impasse that shut down nonessential state services — including the MVC and Island Beach State Park — at the start of the holiday weekend.
On Saturday, Christie told reporters he approved the 500 posters to send a message to people about why their government had to close up shop.
"They are official government advice as to why the buildings are closed, and yes they were approved by the governor," he said. "They need to know when they go to an MVC building this morning why they can't get in. They can't get in because the speaker failed to pass a budget."
He didn't address how much taxpayer money was spent on the posters.
Christie wants the legislature to pass the budget along with a bill to change how Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield is managed — part of his larger battle to some of the insurer's reserve for opioid programs. Prieto refuses to package the two together, though many members of his Democratic caucus would vote for both. Several say they'd support the Horizon bill to keep Christie from using his line-item veto power to find cost savings in programs Democrats support.
Christie has also called for Horizon executives to come to the statehouse Monday for a meeting with himself and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
"Why now? Why after seven and a half years that he's on his way out this has become a battle that he has to have?" the speaker asked about the showdown.
Prieto also questioned whether putting up the signs "borders (on) illegal."
Representatives from the NJEA attempted to hang their own posters in the statehouse alongside others already posted that were authorized by the governor.
Three unions also submitted a joint letter to Attorney General Christopher Porrino questioning the legality of the signs. In a letter from the NJEA and co-signed by the Communications Workers of America New Jersey and the New Jersey Working Families Alliance, the groups called it "wholly inappropriate" for the executive branch to take "action designed to engage in taxpayer-funded political attacks against people with whom the *shutdown) executive order's author may have a policy disagreement, including the printing of, and the labor in posting these signs."
The letter demanded the signs be taken down, and also that the unions be allowed to post their own signs in the same locations with their own wording as part of their first amendment rights.
The Attorney General's office has not yet returned a call from New Jersey 101.5 seeking comment.
NJEA Spokesman Steve Baker said union officials were told by state troopers that they were not allowed to hang their own posters near the ones already posted at the statehouse, or take down the ones that were already hung.
"That is a case of the government promoting one type of political speech, and suppressing opposing political speech," he said. "We think that's a problem from the perspective of the First Amendment."
While the NJEA and Governor Christie have a history of disagreements during his tenure, Baker said this issue is about more than the governor.
"It's about the Constitution of the United States," he said. "It didn't pass our notice that this took place on Fourth of July weekend, a time when we pause as a country to celebrate our freedom, when we pause as a country to celebrate the fact that we're a democracy. The notion that the governor, in his role as governor, was taking actions to suppress democracy, was taking action to undermine the First Amendment on the Fourth of July weekend was just so egregious that we had to act."
Hetty Rosenstein, New Jersey Director of the Communications Workers of America said her organization represents 35,000 people who are locked out as as result of the government shutdown and said they were "obviously deeply disturbed by the posters."
"I was pretty appalled," she said. "it's really grossly dishonest to blame the circumstances on Prieto."
Rosenstein attributed the locket out what she called "a last minute deal they tried to pull in terms of Horizon, and in the meantime the public and our workers are completely leveraged in this situation."
Rather than blaming Prieto Rosenstein said the governor shares in the blame for the shutdown and for the posters that were put up around the state.
"It just is the same way that he addresses his overall constitutional responsibility. He just acts silly," she said. "He acts like a clown instead of seriously addressing an incredibly serious matter where people are out of work and people are losing services and their parks are closed over July 4th weekend. Instead he just tries to show off and be nasty. It's outrageous."
Assembly Deputy Speaker John Wisniewski also objected to the signs while invoking the Bridgegate controversy in a statement released on Saturday.
"Having public employees put up political propaganda on state property sounds sort of like having public employees set up traffic cones to divert access lanes to the George Washington Bridge," he said, adding "Just sayin'."
Christie has never faced any charges or been accused by any authority in the closure of George Washington Bridge lanes, which prosecutors say top aides arranged in an act of political retribution against the mayor of Fort Lee.
"It's stunning that Gov. Christie would have workers hang propaganda signs as he's shutting down valued state services people rely on," Wisnewski added. "It's a shocking abdication of leadership, but sadly something the people of New Jersey are used to at this point."
While the NJEA was not allowed to hang its signs at the statehouse, the ones posted by Gov. Christie were not the only ones on display. A sign on the door of Assemblyman Reed Gusciora had pictures of Island Beach State Park and the governor with the words "CLOSED ON THE FOURTH OF JULY BECAUSE OF THIS MAN."
While Island Beach State Park was closed as a result of the shutdown Christie and his guests were still using the gubernatorial beach house during the holiday weekend.
As of Sunday afternoon, the voicemail of the number for Speaker Prieto provided on the poster was full.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com