Unless someone changes his position, it’s difficult to foresee how the showdown at the Statehouse ends without a temporary shutdown of nonessential government services.

Gov. Chris Christie says he won’t sign the Democrats’ budget unless it’s coupled with a bill overhauling the finances and governance of Horizon Blue Cross and Blue Shield. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he won’t allow that bill a vote. Senate President Stephen Sweeney and likeminded allies in the Assembly say they won’t pass a budget without the Horizon bill, if only to avoid a line-item veto.

The disagreement turned into an impasse Thursday, when the Assembly failed to pass a state budget. Lawmakers return to the Statehouse today for another try, with mere hours before a midnight deadline that, if missed, could lead to New Jersey's first state government shutdown in 11 years.

Thursday’s snafu led to immediate finger-pointing – Christie saying Prieto is “playing a very dangerous game,” and Prieto labeling as “obstructionlists” fellow Democrats who wouldn’t back the budget.

“If Speaker Prieto wants to close the government, this is going to be his decision,” Christie said. “I don’t want to see Speaker Prieto keeping people out of Liberty State Park this weekend for Fourth of July weekend. I don’t want to see Speaker Prieto stopping people from going to Island Beach State Park this weekend during Fourth of July weekend. But this is purely up to him now.”

Christie said state departments have long had contingency plans prepared in case of a shutdown. His acting chief counsel Thursday directed Cabinet officials to submit updated plans by noon today describing the health, safety and welfare functions that would need to be maintained even during a partial shutdown.

“The only obstruction left is the speaker, who for some reason has decided that the interests of a multi-billion insurance company are more important to protect than the people’s ability to have their government remain open and operational,” Christie said. “I don’t understand it.”

Prieto said the Horizon proposal, which the Senate passed 21-15 Thursday, is a bad bill that needs to be further vetted and changed. He said a budget should be passed without it, despite the risk that Christie would delete what Democrats added.

“I said that I would not be part of stopping government, that there was no way in hell. That’s why I put up the bill today,” Prieto said.

The bill was far short of passage – ahead 24-22, with 41 votes needed for passage. Prieto twice had the clerk read a roll call of the 32 members who didn’t cast votes, to point out the legislators – most of them Democrats – he “sat on their hands” said deserve the blame if there’s not a budget by the deadline.

“Those are the people that want to shut down government, and their districts should know about it because that’s not acceptable,” Prieto said.

“These individuals have to think hard and long that, you know, people by a shutdown, you’re going to hurt innocent people – about 100,000 in the state of New Jersey that would not get a paycheck,” he said.

“Think about it. If we do this, after July 1st, people won’t be able to go to state park. You won’t be able to go to DMV, get your driver’s license. For the unemployment office, you can’t go,” Prieto said. “You’re impacting quality of life.”

Christie said he doesn’t want to veto the budget – so long as it’s sent to him “holistically,” meaning along with the Horizon plan and a bill allowing 30 years of lottery profits to be put into the pension fund. (The Senate passed the lottery bill 36-2 Thursday.)

But Christie said he’ll get out the veto pen if he doesn’t get the whole package.

“There are dozens of items in there that I’ve line-item vetoed over the course of time. And if left to my own devices, I showed in 2011, I will do it. And I’ll do it again,” Christie said.

“I will use all the constitutional authority I have to mold the budget to be much closer to the budget, if not exactly the budget, that I presented in February. That’s my preference,” said Christie, who said the $300 million added by Democrats in 30-odd line items represent his concession.

Prieto said he is willing to discuss broader changes that would affect Horizon and other health coverage providers after the budget is approved.

Christie said he’s not waiting to do it after July 1.

“Let me tell you something: When Vincent Prieto says he’ll entertain it later – I never pay you today for a hamburger tomorrow. OK? Old philosopher, I think Wimpy from the Popeye cartoons. I never pay today for a hamburger tomorrow,” Christie said.

“We get our business done by June 30. They’re never coming back,” he continued. “They’re not coming back. They’re in an election year. What do you think I’m a schmuck? Come on. They’re not coming back.”


New Jersey: Decoded cuts through the cruft and gets to what matters in New Jersey news and politics. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.


Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com

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