The budget battle fought over changes to Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield could have been resolved another way – by erasing some $325 million in spending added to the budget by Democratic lawmakers, roughly half of it for increased school aid.

Democrats, particularly Senate President Stephen Sweeney, wouldn’t entertain the idea – even when state services were partially shut down, including state parks over much of the holiday weekend.

“I’m sorry for the inconvenience that everyone went through, but at the end of the day we have one hell of a budget that we can be proud of,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.

“For me, and I know the speaker also, we cared a great deal about the finances that are in this budget,” Sweeney said. “It’s the best budget we’ve seen in 10 years. It provides for a lot of people. And that’s what we cared about.”

Gov. Chris Christie made clear, in public and privately to lawmakers, that he’d use his line-item veto authority to erase those 73 items, and perhaps others, if bills were also approved making changes to Horizon and transferring lottery profits to the state pension funds for the next 30 years.

“In order to get them to agree to those smart fiscal and governance reforms, I needed to give them more spending than I’ve ever given them before. That’s the nature of compromise. That’s why I did it,” said Christie, who said the budget is “a more Democrat budget” than he’d want.

“Listen, it’s not the spending that I would have chosen. But that’s the nature of compromise,” he said.

Christie didn’t totally put down his line-item veto pen.

While he didn’t reduce or delete line items, he did remove language from the budget that Democrats had added in consequential ways.

For instance, he took language that would have restored what’s known as “Heat and Eat” benefits, connecting nutritional benefits to home-heating assistance. Rule changes in 2014 reduced nutritional benefits to around 159,000 New Jersey households by $90 a month.

The provision would cost the state $3.2 million to put into the budget, said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition.

“It’s critical, particularly when we’re looking at what’s happening at the federal level, that the state do as much as it can to reinforce the importance of SNAP and make sure that benefits go to people who are elderly and disabled who are, by far, the most needy,” LaTourette said.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, said the vetoes also eliminate a requirement that $25 million Democrats added for preschool expansion goes to districts with high concentrations of at-risk students and keep in place a “family cap” that denies welfare assistance for children born to a mother already getting Work First NJ benefits.

Prieto, who fought with Christie over the budget, said the vetoes at “another glimpse at Gov. Christie’s bad character – and why he should never have been trusted.”

“Gov. Christie has broken his word yet again, and no one should be surprised,” Prieto said in a prepared statement. “Anyone who contends Gov. Christie is an honest man has spent too much time sitting in the sun with him or in traffic on the George Washington Bridge.”

Christie spokesman Brian Murray said the governor agreed to enact 73 specific budget requests, not every language provision.

“The governor kept his word,” Murray said. “… The governor never agreed to sign an unbalanced budget by preserving every additional spending request sneakily tucked into the budget and not paid for by revenue. Speaker Prieto's statement is false and all the honest parties to our agreement know it.”

In addition to the preschool funding, The Democratic additions to the budget increase education aid by $100 million and redistribute $31 million in previously awarded aid toward more underfunded districts. At Christie’s request, it budget also adds $25 million for extraordinary special education aid.

Democrats’ additions to the education budget also included $23.8 million for aid to nonpublic schools for security, transportation, nursing and technology.

Among the other additions:

  • $20 million to provide cost-of-living-adjustments to DDD, DCF, and DVRS community providers
  • $10 million for NJIT Engineering Makerspace
  • $8 million for prisoner re-entry programs throughout the state
  • $7 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rate for DCF care managers
  • $6 million to restore Essex recidivism pilot
  • $5.25 million for Nursing Homes/SCNFs/Assisted Living
  • $5 million for Sheltered Workshops
  • $5 million restoration for Legal Services of NJ
  • • 5 million in additional support for low-income college students (Educational Opportunity Fund)
  • $5 million for Rutgers Camden School of Business
  • $4 million for County Prosecutor pilot program
  • $3.6 million to restore cut to Liberty Science Center
  • $3 million to provide security at each of the 3 NJ Trauma Centers
  • $3 million for Paid Family Leave outreach and claims processing
  • $2.8 million for NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault
  • $2.2 million for Domestic Violence and Rape Prevention
  • $2 million for Cancer Research
  • $2 million to Rutgers Cancer Institute for lung and colorectal cancer screening programs and tobacco treatment programs
  • $2 million for Federally Qualified Health Centers
  • $2 million to Rutgers Cancer Institute for lung and colorectal cancer screening programs and tobacco treatment programs
  • $1.7 million to support the Battleship New Jersey
  • $1.7 for NJ PAC capital and maintenance
  • $1.2 million to rectify historic underfunding of DEP Bureau of Marine Fisheries
  • $1 million for expansion of Rutgers Cancer Institute of NJ in Newark
  • $1 million for expansion of Rutgers Cancer Institute of NJ in Newark
  • $850,000 for Court Appointed Special Advocates for children
  • $500,000 to restore Housing First pilot program to aid the homeless
  • $250K for Latino Action Network Hispanic Women’s Resource Centers
  • $145,000 for Boys & Girls Clubs
  • $125K for Project S.A.R.A.H.

In the end, the budget passed mostly – but not entirely – along party lines.

The vote was closest in the Senate, where it passed 21-14. Three of the 24 Democrats were absent from the hastily called midnight session, and Sen. Jeff Van Drew, D-Cape May, voted against it – meaning it would have been one vote short of passage, except that Sen. Michael Doherty, R-Warren, voted for it.

In the Assembly, where the vote was 55-21, six of the 28 Republicans voted for the budget: Chris Brown, Robert Clifton, Ronald Dancer, Sean Kean, Kevin Rooney and David Russo.

“I will admit that there is much not to like in this budget. But more importantly and as an overview there is much to be pleased with,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic.

“Priorities paid for with money that we don’t have is not a real commitment to those priorities,” said Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth. “While this budget is not as bad as some previous budgets that we’ve passed, where we spent billions of dollars that we didn’t have, this one still spends hundreds of millions of dollars of essentially fabricated money.”

O’Scanlon said he shares Democrats’ concerns for the good causes the extra money funds. “But ultimately our highest priority needs to be to fiscal sanity and reality and the understanding that our constituents’ pockets are not made out of inexhaustible fountains of cash,” he said.

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

More From New Jersey 101.5 FM