NJ Lawmakers to Vote on $35.8B Budget Plan

The Assembly chamber in the New Jersey statehouse. Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

New Jersey Democrats are expected to unveil and advance a $35.8 billion state budget on Monday as a deadline quickly approaches to pass a spending plan for the next fiscal year.

Democrats have agreed on a $35.8 billion budget for fiscal 2018, which is $320 million more than what Gov. Chris Christie has proposed. Budget committees in the state Senate and Assembly are scheduled to vote on the spending plan Monday afternoon. The state constitution gives lawmakers and Christie until July 1 to have a budget in place.

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) have agreed on a plan to increase funding for education and preschools by $125 million, and to shift about $46 million in so-called adjustment aid from overfunded school districts to cash-starved schools. Democrats also added $195 million to Christie’s proposal, and that money would go toward a range of other programs.

But Christie could strike all that added funding from the budget if he doesn’t get his way on two other issues.

In budget negotiations last week, Christie agreed to sign off on Democrats’ plans only if the Legislature passed a bill to commit the New Jersey lottery to the public worker pension system, and another bill, to let the state reduce the reserves of New Jersey’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Democrats in both chambers appear open to approving the lottery proposal. But Prieto has said the Horizon bill is dead in the Assembly.

Still, Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Middlesex) introduced a bill Friday that would allow the state to take reserve funds from Horizon if it deems the company has an excessive surplus. Christie has long sought to get a $300 million cut from the insurer’s $2.4 billion reserves to fund a new drug addiction treatment program. Vitale’s bill, which would also reduce the number of Horizon board members the company could appoint from 11 to eight, wouldn’t take effect until after Christie takes office.

“This legislation sets up an open public process to develop an appropriate, efficient surplus range within which a Horizon should aim to operate,” Vitale said in a statement Sunday. “I hope members of the Legislature will see that this is a rational, reasonable approach to current concerns about whether or not there truly is an excessive surplus.  This is not a money-grab, it does not create a slush fund, and it does not put any undue operating costs upon Horizon that would drive up premiums.  It simply creates an equitable system that will benefit both Horizon and their premium payers.”

The bill is being fast-tracked in the state Senate and is scheduled for a vote Monday in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee. It could see a full vote in the Senate by Thursday.

Media executive Steve Forbes blasted the bill on Monday, calling it a “political vendetta” and “extortion.” Forbes, the chief executive of Forbes Media and a former Republican presidential candidate, spoke on a conference call hosted by Hands Off Healthcare New Jersey, a campaign run by the Latino Consumers Alliance and funded partly by Horizon.

“Raiding a company for political purposes is the kind of thing you expect in a third-world dictatorship,” Forbes said.

An hour later, a mix of unions and liberal groups railed against the budget and backroom negotiations with Christie at a news conference outside the state house.

Ed Richardson, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said it was “unconscionable” to take state aid away from the so-called overfunded school districts after many had already finalized their budgets in March, as is customary in New Jersey.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, called budgetary raids of environmental pollution settlements “blood money.”

And Jon Whiten, vice president of left-leaning New Jersey Policy Perspective think tank, criticized the “games, horse-trading and budgetary Band-Aids” that make up the last week before a state budget deadline.

“Why give in to this governor, the least popular governor in the nation? Why capitulate to this man now, on Horizon, on school funding, on issue after issue?” asked Analilia Mejia, director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.