The clock is ticking on the New Jersey budget, and so far, things don’t look good. The fight is on between Republican governor Chris Christie and the Democrat-controlled state legislature, generally, and state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), specifically. Up to now, there hasn’t been enough movement from either side to see a way to avoid the pending shutdown. Fireworks have been exploding all week. But, it could be lights out tonight at midnight if a compromise is not reached.
What is going on that is causing such a ruckus?
New Jersey’s fiscal year starts July 1. It happens every year. Only one time, in 2006, did the state lawmakers remain at an impasse past the June 30 budget deadline. The state government shut down and stayed that way for eight days. Then-governor John Corzine scrambled to get the budget passed and get things back up and running.
This time, the stalemate centers around three proposed bills. These bills are unrelated, but for the fact that they have been thrown together via the disagreement. But, they may be part of a compromised budget, whenever that may happen.
First is an education bill that Governor Christie has indicated that he can tolerate. It adds $125 million to state spending in this area. The governor is willing to agree to this, but only if two other bills are also passed. But, this is something with which certain members of his party vehemently disagree.
Second is a state lottery bill. Money coming in from the lottery would be diverted to the state pension fund. This would help bring the fund to solvency. Currently, the fund is underwater to the tune of $44 billion. It is estimated that funds would provide a fix of $13.5 billion after the bill’s passage. This is the first of two bills that Governor Christie wants to include in exchange for the education bill.
Third is a drug addiction bill. Governor Christie wants to take $300 million from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (BCBS-NJ) insurance reserve account and divert that to funding for public health, specifically for drug treatment. This is supported by Senate president Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and is the second of two favored bills for the governor. But, this is one that Speaker Prieto has indicated is a non-starter for him. He feels that BCBS-NJ is being singled out and that a bill like this should include other non-profits before he would be willing to support it. If not, it would, he feels, create a “dangerous precedent.”
“There is in no way, shape or form we are going to take up a bill of that nature against one nonprofit,” Speaker Prieto said last week.
Today, things got even more heated, with Prieto proclaiming the following.
“The Horizon bill is not in the budget. It has nothing to do with the budget. So, if you’re telling me that you’re going to extort a budget because of a bill that is outside the budget, that’s unconscionable.”
If a budget is not passed soon, it could mean no fireworks in Liberty State Park, famous for its Fourth of July lights show. Jersey City mayor Steven Fulop is trying to remain hopeful.
“We have a lot of local entertainment, so there’s been probably about six to eight months that went into planning this,” he said. “We’ve raised a lot of dollars from the private sector in order to move this forward, so it would be a shame if it didn’t happen.”
There are indications of contingency plans. But, changes would mean extra work for those involved.
In the meantime, there are indications that attempts at agreement are continuing, with Governor Christie extending a Friday afternoon invitation to the top legislators to meet with him to discuss an amenable path forward. Maybe it won’t be lights out for New Jersey, after all.
[Featured Image by Michael Catalini/AP Images]