TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — Gov. Chris Christie said late Monday he’ll sign a budget deal and end a government shutdown that had closed state parks and beaches to the public.
The Republican governor, who lounged with his family on a closed beach over the weekend and was roundly criticized for it, said he was saddened the budget deal had come three days late but he’d sign it right away.
He said he had ordered all closed state parks to reopen for the Fourth of July. And he said state government will open on Wednesday and state workers will get a paid holiday Tuesday at his request.
Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced the budget deal earlier Monday. The deal calls for a $34.7 billion budget that includes more than $300 million in Democratic spending priorities and is part of an agreement to overhaul the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
The Horizon legislation calls for annual audits of the nonprofit’s reserve level, sets a range for reserves and requires excess to be spent on policyholders. The budget stalemate centered on Christie’s desire for legislation to overhaul Horizon.
Without a budget, state parks were 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.
Here’s a closer look at the standoff over the budget:
Battle of egos
On the surface the budget stalemate revolved around Christie’s desire to overhaul Horizon, but also in play were the strong personalities of the three principals responsible for passing the budget.
Christie, the brash, tell-it-like-it-is former federal prosecutor, 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 wouldn’t waive his line item authority, which had some Democrats worried.
Sweeney is a former ironworker and current union boss as well as the top elected Democrat for the past eight years. He held the line on Horizon because he trusted Christie would make good on a gentleman’s agreement not to line item veto Democratic priorities.
And Prieto is a onetime plumber 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 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 early Saturday.
Rosenstein said 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 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.
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 were 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 that would let the casinos stay open throughout a state government shutdown.
Associated Press writers Bruce Shipkowski, in Trenton, and Wayne Parry, in Atlantic City, contributed to this story.