USA First Look

New Jersey assembly speaker drafting a bill in bid to end budget stalemate

Vincent Prieto shows confidence a deal to state's budget stalemate, which caused a government shutdown of non-essential services, will be reached.

New Jersey's Democratic Senate President, Steve Sweeney, D-West Deptford, N.J., announces that even if there was an agreement in the legislature, the budget impasse would not end today, July 3, 2017. New Jersey's budget stalemate between Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-controlled Legislature is smoldering with the state government shut down and state parks closed to the public as the Fourth of July approaches.
Mel Evans/AP
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  • Michael Catalini
    Associated Press

New Jersey's assembly speaker said on Monday he's drafting a bill to address the state's largest health insurer and satisfy his fellow Democrats and Republican Gov. Chris Christie in an effort to resolve the budget stalemate that has mired the state in a three-day government shutdown.

Democratic General Assembly Speaker, Vincent Prieto said Monday afternoon he couldn't provide specific details just yet, but smiled and crossed his fingers when he was asked if a deal will be reached.

The budget stalemate centers on Governor Christie's desire for legislation to overhaul health insurer Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield as part of a deal to sign off on a $34.7 billion budget that includes a series of Democratic priorities.

Speaker Prieto and Horizon chief executive Bob Marino met with Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney on Monday. The Senate has already passed a Horizon measure.

State parks are shut down along with other nonessential state services, including state courts and the motor vehicle offices where people go to get driver's licenses. Tens of thousands of state workers are furloughed until Christie signs off on a state budget.

Christie was catching Monday heat for spending time on a beach to which he had blocked public access with his family.

Here's a closer look at the standoff over the $34.7 billion budget:

Battle of egos

On the surface the budget stalemate revolves around Christie's desire to overhaul Horizon, but also in play are the strong personalities of the three principals responsible for passing the budget.

Christie, the brash, tell-it-like-it-is former federal prosecutor whose presidential campaign derailed in part because President Donald Trump played that role better, has staked his final year as governor on overhauling the nonprofit insurer in exchange for his support of more than $300 million worth of Democratic spending priorities.

Christie describes himself as "Mr. Reasonable" but won't waive his line-item authority that has some Democrats worried.

Senator Sweeney is a former ironworker and current union boss as well as the top elected Democrat for the past eight years. He's holding the line on Horizon because he trusts Christie will make good on a gentleman's agreement not to line-item veto Democratic priorities.

And Prieto is a onetime plumber and code-enforcement official from Hudson County, long considered one of the state's hardest-edged political regions, known for old-school party boss politics. Prieto's speakership is under threat from another lawmaker who's already announced a bid against him.

"Egos have to go out the door," Sweeney said, adding there's no place for drawing lines in the sand.

State workers furloughed

Hetty Rosenstein, the New Jersey director of the Communications Workers of America, the largest union of state government workers, said that roughly 35,000 workers have been "locked out" since the shutdown began.

While most of the furloughs took effect Monday, many parks, motor vehicle commission staffers and others who work weekends have been off the job since the early Saturday.

Ms. Rosenstein said that it's unclear if furloughed workers will get back pay once the shutdown ends but "we certainly feel we're entitled to that."

Thomas Walker, of Hamilton Township, had planned to do some research at the state library in Trenton on Monday, but was instead greeted by signs on the door stating it was closed.

"It's not a big deal that I can't do what I wanted to, but I hope these folks realize how much folks are inconvenienced by this mess," he said, adding that he hoped state workers didn't lose any pay due to the shutdown.

Casinos at risk?

A 2008 law passed after the state's last government shutdown allowed casinos to remain open for up to seven days of a government shutdown.

But lawmakers and regulators are looking for ways to prevent the casinos from having to shut down if the impasse continues beyond Friday just as they are regaining momentum after a disastrous three-year period that saw five of the 12 casinos shut down.

Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, an Atlantic City-area Democrat, introduced a bill last week that would let the casinos stay open throughout a state government shutdown.