Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto dug in his heels Thursday morning and said he won’t negotiate on a bill that would restructure the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, as part of a broader deal on the state budget.
It’s the last day of legislative business before the summer break, and the Assembly and Senate are both scheduled to vote on a new state budget, which is due on Saturday at the start of the new fiscal year. With a budget deadline looming and some Democrats plotting his ouster, Prieto (D-Hudson) doubled down on his pledge to not post a Horizon bill for a vote in the Assembly.
Gov. Chris Christie has urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would let the state raid the insurer’s $2.4 billion reserve fund after he leaves office. Christie wants the state to take roughly $300 million a year from the not-for-profit company to fund drug treatment programs.
The state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee approved a similar Horizon bill on Monday, sponsored by Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex). The bill has been fast-tracked this week and is up for a vote in the full Senate on Thursday.
Democrats say Christie has agreed to sign off an extra $125 million they added for schools in the new $34.7 billion state budget, on the condition that they give him a Horizon bill and another, non-controversial piece of legislation.
Prieto has refused to post the Horizon bill in his house, and there has been talk among Democrats of withholding the votes to pass the state budget unless he caves. Other options under discussion include rounding up Republicans to muster the 60 votes needed to override Prieto and force a vote on the Horizon bill, or gathering 41 votes to oust Prieto from the speakership.
The prospect of these nuclear options didn’t change Prieto’s position.
“To be clear — the budget bill has nothing to do with the reworking the state’s largest health insurer in four days, for no apparent reason, during a time when Trumpcare threatens millions of Americans,” Prieto said in a statement Thursday morning. “The Horizon bill is an unfair Christie tax on the insurer’s 3.8 million policyholders. I will not negotiate on that bill as part of the budget process.”
He added that he will post the budget bill and expects Democrats to vote it out of the Assembly. Prieto pressured his colleagues to vote for the budget despite the threat of Christie using his line-item veto to cut nearly $320 million in Democratic spending priorities if he doesn’t get a Horizon bill.
“This budget bill is going up for a vote today,” Prieto said. “Those who support this budget will not be responsible for a state government shutdown. …
“Any member who does not vote for this budget will be hurting working families, and if they want to shut down state government, they will be responsible for putting thousands of New Jerseyans out of work and closing vital programs and assets such as state parks, motor vehicle agencies, general assistance and unemployment offices.”
Democrats on the other side of the issue say that it is precisely for those same reasons — avoiding a government shutdown and securing spending for a host of Democratic priorities — that Prieto should post the Horizon bill and prevent Christie from taking an ax to the budget.
Vitale’s Horizon bill would make broad changes to Horizon’s finances and governance. It would force Horizon to spend down its reserves if the state deemed its surplus to be “inefficient,” or excessive. It would also make three of Horizon’s 15 board members elected by subscribers, rather than appointed by the company.