Next stage for budget grief starts Monday: Bargaining
Approving a state budget has caused an unusual amount of grief this year in Trenton – and the process seems to be following the same stages.
First was denial, as Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders insisted, even in the days leading to the June 30 deadline, that there wouldn’t be a problem getting the spending plan in place. But there was a problem, and there wasn’t a budget, and many state services have been temporarily shut down.
That led to Saturday’s anger, as Christie summoned lawmakers to the Statehouse for a special session, leading to a day of rapid-fire news conferences and speeches in which much fury was raised but zero progress was made toward a solution. Residents were mad as plans to visit state parks were ruined.
Next comes bargaining. Senate President Stephen Sweeney announced Sunday that he wanted executives from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which is fighting an overhaul sought by Christie as part of a budget bargain with lawmakers, to attend a Monday meeting in Trenton with top lawmakers. The company has agreed to attend.
Depression? That could come if bargaining fails, or drags on, as 30,000 to 35,000 state employees working jobs not considered essential for the health, safety and welfare of residents are furloughed. Monday is the first work day since the shutdown, though many are likely taking off for an extended holiday weekend.
“What are we doing? Here’s another day wasted,” Sweeney said. “Saturday was wasted. Sunday is now wasted. We’re not going to accomplish anything unless we get in a room and talk.”
Sweeney said he and Sen. Joseph Vitale, the chairman of the Senate health committee and sponsor of the Horizon overhaul the company is fighting, haven’t even been able to get a phone call from Horizon. He noted Christie has said he’s willing to consider more changes to the Horizon bill.
“But if people aren’t going to come talk to us, how do you make changes? You guess and make changes and you come back and they say, ‘Well, you’re getting warmer; now you’re cooler’?” Sweeney said. “This is not a game now. This is serious.”
“I’m not claiming Horizon’s the evil empire. I’m not. I just think the need to be part of this equation now,” Sweeney said.
Horizon complains that plans to overhaul its governance, transparency and finances could lead to increased rates for the 3.8 million subscribers it provides health insurance, in part because it could lead to the state taking money from its reserves and in part because the state would designate it the ‘insurer of last resort.’
Christie said his willingness to go along with changes depends on their details.
“I already compromised with Sen. Vitale,” Christie said. “Now I’m not going to go too far. But am I open to listening? Of course I am. That’s what I’m here every day doing.”
Members of Christie’s office won’t be attending the 1 p.m. meeting between lawmakers and Horizon. Sweeney said it’s a legislative matter and that he’s well aware of Christie’s position on the matter.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto didn’t know about Sweeney’s plan for a 1 p.m. meeting before the senator announced it publicly, but plans to attend. He said he was already planning to meet with Horizon chief executive officer Bob Marino in North Jersey in the late morning but will shift that meeting to Trenton.
“I look forward to the dialogue,” Prieto said.
Prieto said Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Raj Mukherji and Elizabeth Muoio have an interest in the issue and would attend the meeting, as well.
Christie said Monday’s meeting could help – in part because as he sees it, “Horizon is writing the playbook and calling the shots for the speaker.”
“I think it’s a great thing and I think Bob Marino has an absolute obligation to meet with the Senate president,” Christie said.
Prieto said that on Monday he will schedule a committee hearing on Horizon legislation that would be held at some point over the next few weeks. He also said it's actually impossible to hold a hearing on the bill at this time because the voting session that began late Friday evening is ongoing.
“There’s no urgency of getting done this tomorrow,” Prieto said. “What there’s an urgency is signing a budget because government shutdown, this Chris Christie shutdown, it’s atrocious.”
The vote on the bill changed slightly Sunday, as Assemblyman Jim Kennedy switched from ‘abstain’ back to ‘yes.’ That moved the tally to 27-25 with 23 abstaining, with 41 ‘yes’ votes needed for passage.
Prieto said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who hasn’t yet recorded a vote, will be registering a ‘yes’ vote. That’s not surprising, given that he’s the budget committee chairman. He left Friday before the vote had been called to observe the Sabbath.
Schaer’s vote would make 28 ‘yes’ votes – better than the 24 the budget got in the initial vote last Thursday, but still 13 shy of passage. Prieto said there are a lot of other lawmakers who are abstaining who want to vote for the bill to end the shutdown.
“The court of public opinion, it’s turning the tide. So they have to do the right thing,” Prieto said.
“I think this is when you hit dominos, I think the first couple are maybe spaced apart a little bit further,” he said. “The other ones are a lot closer together, and they’re all coming down quickly.”
Most lawmakers were not at the Statehouse Sunday, despite Christie’s convening a special session. He has called another session for 10 a.m. Monday, but it’s not clear how many will show up.
“They’re not required to be here unless I send state police out to go get them,” said Christie, who said the deal is going to be made with Sweeney and Prieto in the end, anyway.
“All I want to do is make sure they understand I’m going to be here for work every day, and they should be,” Christie said. “But absent sending the State Police out to haul their rear ends in here – I don’t think we’re quite yet at the moment where I should be doing that.”