The state Assembly is scheduled to take up three bills Monday that respond to the three-day government shutdown in early July, including one to pay public workers frozen out of their jobs during the budget impasse.
Nearly 35,000 state workers were furloughed when a budget dispute closed courts, state parks and beaches and government offices. The bill (S3422) amends the fiscal 2018 budget to guarantee workers affected by the shutdown receive back pay. The shutdown lasted from Saturday, July 1, through the early hours of Tuesday, July 4. Most workers were affected for only one day, a Monday.
The Senate has already approved the back-pay bill, and Gov. Chris Christie — who initially said state workers shouldn’t count on back pay — has promised to sign it should it reach his desk. The bill is sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Middlesex) and Sen. Christopher “Kip” Bateman (R-Somerset).
A budget brawl between Christie and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) shuttered state government when the two squared off over a bill to restructure New Jersey’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield. Both sides ultimately agreed on a watered-down Horizon bill to re-open government, but they continued to feud over back pay. Prieto urged Christie to pay workers with his executive authority since the money to do so was already allocated in the fiscal 2018 budget. But Christie claimed he needed the Legislature to act first.
The shutdown drew national attention when Christie was pictured sitting on a state beach he closed while tourists were turned away during the July 4 holiday weekend.
Two Assembly bills address this. One, sponsored by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex), would kick the governor out of his state-provided beach house at Island Beach State Park, in Berkeley Township, during a budget-related government shutdown. The bill (A5132) would bar the governor and his family from using any state-owned residential property except for Drumthwacket, the governor’s mansion in Princeton, in such a scenario.
“If a beach is closed because of a state shutdown, it ought to be closed to everybody,” Wisniewski said in a statement. “Having it open to the governor and his guests while it’s closed to all the other New Jersey residents who are paying for them to be there isn’t right and it isn’t fair.”
But another bill would keep state beaches open for a week after a budget-related government shutdown. The measure (A5128), sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), would keep state parks, forests, recreation areas, historic sites and natural and wildlife management areas open for up to seven days in future shutdowns. That’s similar to a 2008 law that keeps casinos open for a week during state shutdowns, a response to a 2006 budget dispute that closed Atlantic City’s gambling halls.
“Shutdowns cost the state tens of millions of dollars in activity and revenue,” said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club. “We should never allow a governor to hold our parks and beaches, or the people of New Jersey, hostage. Parks are just as vital as any other part of government, especially on the July 4th weekend. We need this legislation to make sure that this won’t happen again and that people can enjoy the beaches and parks that belong to them even if the government fails to do their job.”