This morning we are at an impasse with the threat of New Jersey’s state government being shut down. Governor Christie and Senate President Steve Sweeney, with George Norcross lurking in the background, insist there will be no state budget until the Assembly agrees to pass a bill that demands Horizon to pay the State monies from its reserve fund and to accept new regulations.
A principled Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto refuses to acquiesce in spite of the fact that Christie offers to increase the budget with items Democrats want if they pass the the Horizon bill. Both gubernatorial candidates, many unions, chambers of commerce and others agree with Prieto. Nonetheless, Prieto’s future as Assembly Speaker is now in the balance. Yesterday his assembly colleagues failed to pass the budget bill, insisting that Prieto give way to Christie and allow a vote on the Horizon bill first.
Governor Christie: It’s perplexing to understand why Christie at the nadir of his popularity and with only six months left in office would launch an attack against New Jersey’s premier health insurer Horizon. With his strong pro-business approach it is unlike him to demand that a huge corporation turn over some $300 million of its reserves to the State. Nonetheless, over many months Christie has pursued his vendetta. He even upped the ante last week by fining Horizon $16 million for mishandling Medicaid funds.
Perhaps it’s just Christie’s modus operandi – his transactional politics in which he cynically offers to provide worthwhile benefits if the opposition legislative leaders give him something he wants. We saw this take place with the Transportation Trust Fund bill where he insisted on lowering the sales tax and winding down the estate tax in order to finally replenish the TTF. In another occasion he offered as bait increasing the Earned Income Tax, which he had originally slashed in half.
Perhaps Christie’s motive is more sinister. International Business Times posits: “His campaign against Horizon could benefit a health insurance provider linked to Josh Kushner, son-in-law of the man who could decide if Christie gets a job in the Trump administration when his gubernatorial term ends.” Christie’s battle with Horizon could also help AmeriHealth, which is partly owned by a company run by Christie’s political ally, Democratic Party boss George Norcross.
Political boss George Norcross maintains strong reins over his South Jersey domain and fiercely pursues contracts for his insurance firm and other business interests. Although nominally a Democrat he has been content to transact deals with Christie and then have his loyal Senate President Sweeney ram bills past the legislature. Assembly Speaker Prieto, however, has not played along. Most recently it took months of disagreements for Prieto and Sweeney to settle on a revised school funding formula. Minimum wage, the Atlantic City rescue plan, casinos in the North and TTF were other issues which divided the two leaders.
With Prieto disagreeing with Sweeney, Norcross viewed the assembly leader as an impediment. In May Norcross quietly started an effort to overthrow Prieto by supporting Democratic Assemblyman Craig Coughlin as a replacement. Norcross automatically has some 13 votes from allies in the Assembly. In the past few days Assembly Democrats have been seen to want to accept the added benefits Christie offers, and have engaged in talks about voting out Prieto as Speaker if he does not post the Horizon bill. Prieto says, “We need to draw the line, and the line has been drawn… for good conscience and doing the right thing,”
So there’s the impasse. Prieto seemingly defending the Alamo against the unnecessary demands of a moribund governor, a still powerful political boss and a Senate president willing to accept Christie’s terms. It is possible that Prieto will make another attempt today to pass the budget bill without posting the Horizon bill. Christie and Sweeney find that unacceptable, so the likelihood of a State government shutdown on July 1 looms ominously. “Round and round it goes; where it will end, no one knows.”