Christie Orders Shutdown as Democrats Trade Blame

Chris Christie. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Gov. Chris Christie ordered a state government shutdown on Saturday after the clock struck midnight without a deal on a new state budget, forcing state parks, Motor Vehicle Commission locations, and some highway rest stops to close and tens of thousands of workers to be furloughed.

Instead of finalizing his last budget, the governor will preside over his first shutdown in two terms — all over an insurance company he and some Democrats want to bring under intense new regulations even though the issue has no apparent urgency.

Christie’s executive order maintains essential services such as the state police, NJ Transit, child welfare services and state hospitals, the medical examiners office, any court functions determined to be essential by the state’s chief justice, prisons and halfway houses, among others, according to the governor’s office. The state closure also won’t affect the state lottery, casinos or racetracks, which are considered to be essential functions in New Jersey.

But several New Jersey government departments will suspend services, preventing the public from renewing driver’s licenses or getting copies of birth and marriage certificates. All state parks, including Island Beach State Park and Liberty State Park, and tourism welcome centers would be closed for the July 4th holiday weekend, only to be reopened if and when a budget deal is reached.

All Motor Vehicle Commission agencies and inspection centers, workers’ compensation courts, taxation call centers, and a couple of rest areas on I-295 and I-80, among other affected services, will close, according to the governor’s office.

Christie also called for a special joint session of the Legislature for 11 a.m. Saturday to find an agreement on a $34.7 billion fiscal 2018 budget, though it’s unclear if he will get the chance to speak to lawmakers in their house, as he requested. The Assembly and Senate are technically still in session, and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) said he planned to keep the board room open for a vote indefinitely as he tries to pressure fellow Democrats to approve the budget.

“This order is necessary to maintain the protection, safety and well-being of the people of New Jersey while I attempt to convince the Legislature to send me a fiscally responsible budget that I can sign and re-open New Jersey’s government,” Christie said in a statement after midnight. “This was completely avoidable. But Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto needlessly stalled the budget process, forcing the closure of New Jersey government and inconveniencing everyone living in and visiting our state.”

Prieto said Christie, Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and the roughly two dozen Assembly Democrats who are withholding their votes for the budget were the ones shutting down the government. The budget itself is not in controversy. Rather, some Democrats hoping to oust Prieto from the speakership next year are fretting that if they don’t give Christie a bill he has demanded — to restructure the state’s largest health insurance company — the governor will make good on his threat to cut out $320 million in spending Democrats added for the budget.

That includes $125 million for schools and pre-K programs, funds for cancer research, domestic violence prevention, tuition assistance grants, legal services for the poor, home health-care workers for the disabled, and other areas.

“The governor will want to go paint me as the guy who’s shutting down government,” Prieto said. “He’s holding the budget ransom with these 24 members that have abstained, that should be voting for it, and those are the members that are shutting down government at this point in time, and they need to move that needle and change those abstentions to yeses.”

The speaker said he had compromised several times to reach a budget deal, accepting a proposal from Sweeney to redistribute funds from overfunded to underfunded school districts and agreeing to give Christie a separate bill he wanted to fold the state lottery into the pension system for public workers.

“I’ve been the one that’s been trying to negotiate,” Prieto told reporters after midnight.

But the threat of losing the $320 million was not easily dismissed for the Democratic holdouts in his caucus.

“I’m on the side of 9 million people here in New Jersey, and I’m on the side of people getting a deal done for school funding, and the people that are standing with me are on the side of getting pre-K funding and nursing home funding and funding for Medicaid,” said Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden), who is abstaining from the budget until Democrats reach a deal with Christie that protects those programs.

All sides have said that to stay Christie’s veto pen, Democrats could come up with a separate proposal that does not affect Horizon. Christie floated the so-called “newspaper revenge” bill he tried to get last year, Prieto said, but the Democratic caucus would not support it. And no other proposals reached critical mass. Greenwald said the Horizon deal was one viable option to break the budget impasse.

“Horizon is the only company that stayed in the [Obamacare] exchange. Horizon is the only company that when everyone else left helped us sign up over 550,000 people that didn’t have insurance before. Horizon is a company that came out with an innovative program that signed up over 50,000 people that didn’t have insurance in the last 10 years,” Greenwald said. “Horizon needs to come to the table, as they have over the last number of years to come up with creative and innovative programs like that, to help us find a solution. They’re a remarkable company that has done remarkable things in this state and they’ve helped a tremendous amount of people. I would hate to see their reputations damaged … by not coming to the table now and finding a solution.”

He did not mention Prieto but complained that Democrats frittered away several hours on an extended budget vote that went nowhere instead of working to cut a deal.

“We just wasted about seven hours sitting on the floor looking at a board that didn’t change,” Greenwald said. “We had an opportunity to get together in rooms over those hours and hammer out a compromise, and we didn’t.”

Lawmakers in both houses were expected to return to Trenton on Saturday morning.