Even though he was lampooned worldwide for lounging on an empty beach this summer, Gov. Chris Christie is the one getting the last laugh three months after a chaotic and acrimonious shutdown of state government.
The budget deal that ended the shutdown in July looks a lot different today. While he failed to get lawmakers to raid roughly $300 million from the reserves of the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, Christie will still get to spend roughly $200 million on the issue he wanted the money for in the first place: combating the deadly opioid epidemic.
The governor will pay for his plan partly by yanking funds from Democratic priorities, including some of the $25 million for an expansion of prekindergarten and $6.5 million for tuition-assistance grants. Democratic lawmakers got Christie to approve both items as part of the budget deal that ended the government shutdown.
By vetoing out some budget language he himself had inserted in this year’s appropriations act, however, Christie gained broad authority to redirect any budget funds to any initiatives tackling a “public health crisis.” Christie has declared the opioid epidemic a crisis by executive order.
Although Democrats claimed victory when they struck the budget agreement with Christie, pointing to the $25 million preschool expansion and the $6.5 million in extra funding for tuition-assistance grants, it turns out that the governor’s crafty use of the line-item veto will allow him to take those funds for his top priority in his final year in office. Christie, however, approved $325 million in total that Democrats wanted for dozens of programs, including an extra $100 million for public schools.
So far, those other programs are not losing funds to Christie’s opioid initiative.
The state budget this year is $34.7 billion. But for the first time in Christie’s tenure, it did not arrive on time by the July 1 deadline, because Christie and the Democrats who control the Legislature could not reach agreement on the plan to raid Horizon’s reserves.
In July, Democrats gave Christie a bill to commit the state lottery to the public pension system and a bill making modest changes to Horizon, and Christie agreed to sign the budget with their extra $325 million in spending. The deal reopened government after a three-day shutdown in which parks and beaches were closed during the July 4 holiday weekend.
But Christie is now taking $6.5 million in unused TAG funds and $5.6 million in unspent money for the pre-K expansion to pay for his opioid programs. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) blasted Christie over the money grab on Monday and accused the governor of breaking his budget promise.
Democrats including Prieto, though, left language in the budget ultimately allowing Christie to take the money. Christie originally proposed language saying funds could be moved from one line item to another to promote state programs, including those related to public health. The governor later modified his own language once the budget bill passed, using his veto pen to cut out the part related to “promotion.”
Below is the budget language, with the portion Christie line-item vetoed bracketed and in bold:
“Such amounts as may be necessary are appropriated or transferred from existing appropriations for [the purpose of promoting awareness to increase participation in programs that are administered by the State, including but not limited to] programs to preserve or promote public health and safety, subject to the approval of the Director of the Division of Budget and Accounting. “
“If the speaker read his own budget that he passed — he gave me the authority to do this,” Christie said Wednesday, mocking Prieto for nearly 10 minutes during an unrelated news conference in Toms River. “Maybe someone didn’t read it to him.”
Prieto has no say in the line-item veto process, but Democrats could have removed the entire sentence before passing the appropriations act. Prieto spokesman Tom Hester said the budget language was considered reasonable at the time. Christie had publicly promised to not veto out extra funding for Democratic priorities, including pre-K and TAG, “so it was presumed that money was off-limits,” Hester said.
Christie said Wednesday that application deadlines for TAGs and pre-K funding had passed once the school year started and that there were millions of dollars left over for him to use. A Department of Education spokesperson confirmed that preschool grant applications were due Aug. 21. A spokesperson from the state Commission on Higher Education didn’t return a message for comment on whether there was a TAG deadline.
“No one else applied. The deadline passed. Schools started. That’s the end of the discussion,” Christie said. “What are we supposed to do then? Just leave the money sitting in an account?”
Christie originally wanted to raid the reserves of Horizon to pay for his opioid programs. But Prieto stymied the governor’s efforts, refusing to post a Horizon bill for a vote in the Legislature’s lower house. The two sides ultimately agreed on a watered-down version of the legislation that didn’t allow the governor to grab funds from the insurer.
The feud has continued ever since. The two have not spoken in more than three months, both sides said, instead only communicating through public insults in news reports. On Tuesday, Christie called Prieto a “liar” and an “ineffective” and “irrelevant” leader destined to lose the speakership and become a “back-bencher in the Assembly.”
“The speaker is still angry that I put posters of him all over the state making folks know he’s the guy who closed down the government,” Christie said, referring to fliers state workers distributed blaming Prieto for the shutdown.
In response, Prieto poked fun at Christie’s historic-low approval ratings and the infamous photos of the governor sitting on a state beach he closed to the public during the shutdown.
“The people of New Jersey don’t like him, so he’s reverting to unhinged insults,” Prieto said in a statement. “And by the way, we know what photos people remember from the shutdown — and needless to say they aren’t photos of me.”