Assembly Speaker Discusses Drug Treatment, Education Funding

The governor has bipartisan backing for his plan to tackle the state’s opioid epidemic. But Gov. Chris Christie omitted from his State of the State speech some pressing issues, including any plan for preserving the expanded Medicaid program that under the Affordable Care Act has insured some 566,000 New Jersey residents. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto has called on Christie to make sure Obamacare stays in place. He spoke with NJTV News Anchor Mary Alice Williams.

Williams: Does Christie have the power, Mr. Speaker, given that this is congressional repeal?

Prieto: Right, well, actually I think in the State of the State he said he has a phone number to the White House coming into the next administration so I hope he uses it. I think it’s important for us to advocate for keeping the Affordable Care Act and especially he was a very big advocate of the Medicaid expansion, that as you mentioned, 566,000 New Jersey residents that had no insurance now are now getting them.

Williams: Can we keep the Medicaid expansion without keeping the Affordable Care Act?

Prieto: Well, right now they’re tied. The state could, but then the state would have to fund it. And the problem is where are we going to get those funds? So it’s important for us, especially when we talk about medical treatment for drug addiction, a lot of these services are coming through the Medicaid expansion so it’s important for us to be able to keep this.

Williams: You mention part of the drug treatment program. Is that going to get through the Legislature with any difficulty?

Prieto: I don’t think there will be difficulty. I think everybody can agree on what was said at the State of the State that there is an epidemic, not only in the state of New Jersey but in the nation, and we have to do something about it. Families and individuals are being hurt. We need to take care of them as it is a disease.

Williams: Let me ask you about school funding. Yesterday there were competing press releases between you and the state Senate president [Steve Sweeney] about school funding. He asked you to join his plan. You’ve asked him to get on board your plan. What’s the difference in the two plans?

Prieto: The difference in the two plans, the Senate president had put a commission together that would look at just some four aspects, roughly, of the current funding formula and they would create legislation that would be a bill drawn up and it would then be posted by me in the Assembly and by him in the Senate. On second reading on the floor with no dialogue, no amendments, no discussion and I am concerned about the outcome. There’s been some numbers floated, but you can never anticipate what a commission would do. My plan has been to go back to what we have today, that in ’06 it was vetted through the Legislature. In ’08 we got a funding formula that was court tested and it was given the constitutional muster that it was constitutional, the first one in over 30 years. But we need to revisit it. It’s almost a decade later. What has been working? What hasn’t been working? Let’s look at it all. Let’s do it, let’s have a dialogue. So the educational committee is going to start holding hearings first with stakeholders and then throughout the state so everybody can have a say.

Williams: But you’ve said that you think it’ll be unwise to go back to the 2008 formula lifting the caps and revisiting school districts based on difference in enrollment.

Prieto: No, I haven’t said anything unwise. I said we need to look at the whole formula, see what has worked, what hasn’t worked and tweak that but use that as the skeleton, that it actually was constitutionally sound.

Williams: Will you be able to work with the Senate president on Christie’s “Fairness Formula”?

Prieto: Christie’s “Fairness Formula” is unconstitutional and I would tell you that that becomes a problem. I come from a world of uniform construction code — one code for the whole state. Education is not quite the same because I always tell everybody where I come from, English as a second language, I’m actually the poster child for that as a 10.5-year-old here that did not know the language. I know those challenges — not having a parent at home that can help you with your homework, so all these challenges, not having the means of income. So there is the disparity so we have to make sure that no kid slips through the crack. But the funding formula we had, the money was supposed to follow the child. We haven’t fully funded it.