Christie shuts down N.J. government over budget impasse | State

New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie has ordered the state government to shut down after he and the Democrat-led Legislature failed to reach an agreement on a new budget.

The shutdown means state parks and nonessential services like the Motor Vehicle Commission are shutting down just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Prisons, the state police and casinos will remain open.

This is Christie’s first government shutdown in his two terms, and the first since 2006 under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine.

Budget talks fell apart when Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto failed to support a bill to make over the state’s largest health insurer. The measure was backed by Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Christie is term-limited. Voters will elect a new governor in November.

TRENTON — Republican Gov. Chris Christie on Friday demanded the Democrat-controlled Legislature send him a measure to make over the state’s largest health insurer, threatening the first government shutdown on his watch because of a position that has drawn the ire of liberal and conservative groups alike.

The deadline to enact a budget was midnight Friday. No resolution had been reached by deadline.

Christie, who is deeply unpopular in the state as he heads into his final six months in office, has made supporting a $34.7 billion budget that includes 73 Democratic priorities contingent on a proposal to overhaul the nonprofit Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, aiming to tap into their surplus to finance drug treatment.

Last year’s surplus was $2.4 billion.

Voting on a budget in the Democrat-led Assembly was underway but deadlocked Friday. Speaker Vincent Prieto said he would leave the vote open and blamed a possible shutdown on the two dozen members who abstained.

A government shutdown would be the first on Christie’s watch. It would mean the state’s nonessential services, such as state parks and motor vehicle offices would close. Prisons, State Police and Atlantic City’s casinos would remain open.

Christie said at a news conference hours before Friday’s deadline that he and Senate Democrats, who have agreed with the governor, still did not have a deal with Prieto, who refuses to consider the Horizon legislation.

Christie was once viewed as the future of his party — a Republican who could compromise with Democrats to produce results and win in a Democratic state. He was praised for his handling of Hurricane Sandy and won re-election in 2013 by double digits.

But Christie’s second and final term is wrapping up with his approval ratings at 15 percent. Christie’s proposal has perplexed some conservatives, who have rallied to oppose the legislation. Labor groups that typically align with Democrats, like the state’s largest teachers union, also oppose the idea.

Christie has cast Horizon, which opposes the measure and has parked a mobile video billboard displaying anti-Christie videos near his office this week, as a giant, greedy company that is abandoning the charitable mission the state had in mind when the state designated it as a health services corporation. Horizon has four board members appointed by the governor.

Christie referred to the video as “a carnival” and attacked Horizon for spending money on lobbyists.

Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, opposes the governor’s plan, which he said is expected to raise health care premiums on four million families covered by Horizon.

“At a time when working middle-class families are struggling to make ends meet and worrying if they will be able to afford to take their kids to the doctor if they get sick, we should be working together to make health care more affordable, which is why I fundamentally disagree with Gov. Christie’s bullying tactics to shut down government in order to bend politicians to his will simply so he can have his way, which will ultimately cost the working families of Atlantic County, whom I represent, to pay more for their health insurance,” Brown said in a statement Friday evening.

Businessman and publisher Steve Forbes called Christie’s plan political “extortion.” Americans for Prosperity has come out against the proposal. The pro-business New Jersey Business and Industry Association, typically a reliable Republican ally, has abandoned Christie on this issue.

Christie said during a news conference Friday that he’s not concerned about how he’d be perceived during a shutdown.

“I’m upset because this will inconvenience the people of New Jersey,” he said. “That’s the only reason I’m upset. Otherwise, legacy, all that other stuff, please. There will be a long list of things pro and con on my legacy.”

The issue comes down to compromise, he said, adding that his willingness to agree to Democratic spending preferences despite having the ability to line-item veto them shows he’s bending.

He called himself “Mr. Reasonable.”

But Prieto said it’s he who has already compromised by accepting the bill to transfer the state’s lottery to the pension to reduce its unfunded liability.

He says that he’s not budging on the Horizon bill and that it’s the wrong time to consider legislation that could affect ratepayers at a time when congressional Republicans are debating “Trumpcare,” a clear reference to the delayed GOP efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act.

Christie on Friday presented a 2006 bill that Prieto co-sponsored that proposed using Horizon’s surplus as a sign that Prieto was acting hypocritically.

Prieto responded “things change and things evolve.”

Invoking Trump could resonate on another level in New Jersey, where Christie enthusiastically backed the president and now leads an anti-opioid addiction panel for the White House. Trump lost New Jersey to Hillary Clinton last year.

In 2006, when the government shut down under Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, casinos were closed and road construction projects were required to wind down. Motor vehicle offices shuttered and about 45,000 state employees were furloughed. State courts were closed for anything but emergencies. State-run parks, beaches and historic sites remained open through the July Fourth holiday but closed afterward.

Christie said Thursday that if a deal isn’t reached, parks would be closed for the weekend, but beachgoers would still have plenty of options at local municipal beaches up and down the state’s 127-mile coastline.

The Senate approved a different version of Christie’s initial proposal.

Rather than tapping directly into Horizon’s surplus, it requires that the state insurance commissioner set a range for Horizon’s surplus. When the top limit is exceeded, then the excess cash would go toward programs to benefit the public and policyholders under the Senate bill.

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