Government Prepares for Possible Shutdown

In Trenton this morning, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno helped swear in a new class of state corrections officers. These people would keep working if state government shut down, which would happen if officials don’t adopt a state budget by July 1. So would the state police and other essential personnel.

But most state offices would close. The Motor Vehicle Commission would be dark, state parks and state beaches shut down and no state lottery.

It wouldn’t be the first time New Jersey’s government shut down. Former Treasurer Dave Rousseau was the Senate president’s budget officer during the 2006 shutdown.

“It’s disruptive to the employees who don’t know whether or not they if they’re coming to work, that could potentially lose days’ pay,” Rousseau said. “It’s very disruptive if it happens.”

The 2006 shutdown closed the state court system for eight days and 31 state departments and agencies. Forty-five thousand employees out of 80,000 were furloughed at places like the Department of Health and the Department of Labor.

If it were to happen again, most employees at the Department of Law and Public Safety and the Department of Community Affairs, among many others, would stay home.

Bill Castner, the former top aide to then Speaker Joe Roberts — whose standoff with Gov. Jon Corzine over what to do with a penny hike in the sales tax led to the shutdown — says Gov. Christie is right to seek a contingency plan.

“I think what the governor has done is not unorthodox. You need to have contingency plans in the executive branch in the event there’s an impasse coming July 1,” Castner said.

The biggest push-back in 2006 came from the casino industry. All 12 casinos were shut down for lack of government inspectors. Since then the law has changed to make gaming enforcement officers essential personnel, thus guaranteeing the continued operation of the gaming halls.

Was it hard to recover from that shutdown?

“There were a lot of issues that had to be resolved after that. The employees were off for almost two weeks because we had had a flood in Trenton the week before that and the whole issue about whether or not employees were going to be paid for the time off during the shutdown was a major issue that needed to be resolved,” Rousseau said. “It was resolved that the the employees were paid because it wasn’t their fault that the Legislature and the governor couldn’t do their job that year.

Perhaps state workers remember that shutdown more than the general citizenry of New Jersey.

“Public employees are defined as either essential employees or non-essential employees and if you’re not an essential employee you stay home, you don’t get paid and you don’t get to fulfill your public responsibility,” Castner said.

The conventional wisdom is that the governor does not want to go to the Republican Convention in Tampa this summer having just endured a shutdown of state government. But with a tax-cut deal still elusive — and a university merger bill that has its first legislative hearing tomorrow — the possibility of a shutdown looms a little larger than it did a month ago.

Michael Aron reports from Trenton.