Final budget shutdown hurdle cleared as legislative leaders tackle back pay

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Outside the taxation building, state workers were on their lunch break. When state government shut down for three days in early July, they lost a day’s pay. Many Motor Vehicle workers lost two days. State park workers lost up to three days.

In the only other modern state shutdown back in 2006, furloughed workers were awarded back pay.

In the heat of the crisis this time, Gov. Chris Christie poured water on that idea.

“Yeah, don’t count on it,” Christie said during the shutdown. “That was Jon I’ll-fight-for-a-good-contract-for-you Corzine. I ain’t him.”

In the days since, there’s been confusion about back pay. The governor said furloughed workers should apply for unemployment benefits. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the governor should sign an executive order to get the workers paid. Senate President Steve Sweeney said he’d do it by passing a bill, so he called in the Senate this morning and they passed a bill unanimously.

“The state workers were in no way responsible for what happened here. In fact, we’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened here. But we do know that they were not responsible,” said bill co-sponsor Sen. Linda Greenstein.

“We’ve spoken to the governor, I’ve spoken to the governor a few times on this, he’s been more than reasonable and more than fair on this issue and he doesn’t blame the workers either. So at the end of the day this is a very good outcome. We need the Assembly to get in here and pass it, because even after we pass this he can’t sign a bill if it’s not on his desk,” said Sweeney.

“It wasn’t the state employees’ fault that the state shut down,” said Sen. Kip Bateman. “They’re hard-working employees. Many of them live paycheck to paycheck. Because we didn’t do our job, they shouldn’t be penalized.”

The Assembly was not in today, but the CWA, the largest state workers union, scheduled a rally for back pay.

Prieto was all smiles when he arrived, an indication that he’d announce he was calling his house in to pass the Senate bill. He continued to advocate for Christie signing an executive order.

“The first thing that I ask is that he should be able to do this by executive order. It should be that simple. It shouldn’t be that, but guess what, he wants a bill, we’ll give him a bill. That’s no problem at all,” Prieto said.

He took a swipe at Christie, saying the governor is a man who always finds a way to get what he wants.

“He found himself, as that picture shows, to be able to use the beach when the rest of us could not be on the be beach,” said Prieto.

But he’s joining Christie on the bill, which the governor said yesterday he would sign.

“As of July 1, every single penny is appropriated to get you paid, so that’s why I believe he has that ability today. But we will come back and we will do that before the end of this month to make sure you’ll get paid,” Prieto said.

It was a good day for about 30,000 state workers who are now assured they will receive their lost wages. And it was a day of relative harmony among previously warring politicians.

So the government shutdown of 2017 has just produced its last hiccup, but from conversations with the leaders it seems that hard feelings still linger on all sides.