POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Assembly votes to give furloughed state workers back pay

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

In its last scheduled meeting before summer recess, the Assembly addressed lingering fallout from the acrimonious government shutdown. Like the Senate, it voted unanimously to guarantee some 35,000 state workers back pay after they got involuntarily furloughed for three days earlier this month, while deadlocked politicians arm-wrestled over the state budget.

“I still firmly believe we could’ve done this by executive order. It’s the 31st of July. It took a while for us to get here because it’s very difficult to get as many bodies, especially because people have obligations and commitments during the summer. But, we’re here to do the right thing, to make sure these employees are made whole,” Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said.

Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick voted yes, but says lawmakers should be fined $1,000 for shutting down the government.

“They have to meet and they have to talk, you can’t just have your press conference and scream at each other, and that’s what in my judgement happened down here and that’s why we pay the employees,” Bramnick said.

The government shutdown also closed state parks and beaches, infuriating residents and tourists on a summer weekend heading into the July 4 holiday. Monday, the state Assembly voted unanimously to keep those facilities open for at least a week if another deadlock cripples state government. Atlantic City casinos and racetracks already continue to operate during government shutdowns.

“And this isn’t at all to be disparaging of the governor. I mean that from the bottom of my heart. This is all about those families that save all year for that vacation in Stokes Forest, and have to send the Winnebago back because they don’t have a place to park it,” Democrat assemblyman John McKeon said.

But, the governor was disparaged for going to Island Beach State Park with his family during the shutdown and conspicuously enjoying the state-funded governor’s beach house, while the rest of the public got locked out. The image of a lounging Christie spawned some nasty memes, and actual legislation.

“The governor chose to rub salt in the wounds to all those families by showing up at the official governor’s residence at Island Beach State Park. I would propose, and what this bill does Mr. Speaker, is to make sure that in future situations like that – that that house is off-limits,” the bill’s sponsor, Assemblyman John Wisniewski, said.

The bill passed almost unanimously. Republican assemblywoman BettyLou DeCroce was one of two no votes.

“I don’t think we should stop governors going forward, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats from making a responsible decision pertaining to what the people of New Jersey provide for them,” DeCroce said.

Governor Christie has promised to sign the bill paying state workers. The government shutdown bills concerning the governor’s beach house, and keeping parks and beaches open, are headed to the Senate.

The Assembly tackled a short list of bills. It approved a resolution to delay Gov. Christie’s push to transfer mental health and addiction services from the Department of Human Services over to the Department of Health. The chair of the Assemblyman Human Services Committee, Valerie Vainieri-Huttle, voted to hit the pause button. “Does the Department of Health have the wherewithal at this point to administer that service?” she asked.

“Don’t forget, this is a major systemic change in departments, and to do this at the eleventh hour, when the legislature and the providers really didn’t have an opportunity to vet it — is not the right timing,” Huttle said.

“It’s appropriate. It has been considered for years by the Administration. The people running the departments know what they’re doing. These are not partisan hacks, they care about the people they’re entrusted to care about,” Republican assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon said of the proposal. “They made the case, so I support it.”

The Assembly adjourned with scattered applause, as the body heads out onto the campaign trail. All 120 seats in both houses are up for election this fall.