By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent
A roar went up in the Assembly around midnight last night when Speaker Vincent Prieto entered the chamber. When the budget bill passed a few minutes later — 53 to 23 — there were more kudos for the speaker.
“This body salutes you today! Members, please rise!” Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter said.
For weeks the Democratic speaker had been under pressure to make a deal with the Republican governor and the Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney.
Pass a bill restructuring Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield and the governor will sign our budget bill, the Senate president told Prieto. But Prieto didn’t like the Horizon bill and was stubbornly refusing to consider it. When no budget was passed by June 30 at midnight, the state shut down and the finger pointing began.
Things were at a logjam for three days until Horizon CEO Bob Marino, who is also an NJTV trustee, showed up at the State House and met with both legislative leaders.
“I think you all realize that Horizon didn’t ask to be in the middle of this situation, but I do appreciate the opportunity to have met with them and expressed my concerns,” Marino said after meeting with Sweeney and Prieto.
Seven hours later, at ten o’clock last night, Senate President Sweeney and the speaker held a joint news conference to announce the deal.
“None of this was easy, but the speaker says he’s always willing to compromise and that is a true statement, and again I want to thank you. And I think this is a good day because everything will be open probably starting tomorrow. The governor said he’s putting out a release that the beaches will be open tomorrow, the parks. Speaker?” Sweeney said.
“Thank you, Senate president,” Prieto continued. “I appreciate it. We were in a crisis. Again, for me it was always about getting this budget passed and I still stand behind it, it’s a good budget.”
Prieto had not wanted to rush a Horizon bill and now had to explain his change of heart on that.
“The one thing that I had said, that I did not want to see a bill move before it was properly vetted. the difference since we were in a crisis, we brought in the key stakeholder, as I said, that entity that’s going to be affected by this, had them be part of this discussion. And I talked to a lot of other key stakeholders,” said Prieto.
With Horizon solved, all parties would agree to 73 additional items in the budget that Democrats put in there.
“By us accomplishing this, we’re going to stay here tonight until 12, 1 in the morning, whatever it is. Everyone will be able to enjoy their Fourth of July plans as is. I’m sorry for the inconvenience that everyone went through, but at the end of the day we have one helluva budget that we can be proud of,” Sweeney said.
The lesson in this episode, Sweeney said, is always talk.
“I knew we could get to a conclusion if we could get in a room,” Sweeney said. “I had reached out to Bob Marino on Tuesday and asked him to give me a call and I couldn’t get him to give me a call. And it was frustrating because you could see things coming. And for the first time since I’ve been Senate president I knew we were in trouble because when people don’t talk, things don’t get done.”
Next, it was Christie’s turn. At 11 last night he came out to confirm that he was signing off on everything.
“Finally, tonight I’m very pleased that both the speaker and the Senate president have reached an agreement which will result in the Legislature fulfilling their obligation to deliver a budget to the governor. I’m saddened that it’s three days late, but I’ll sign the budget tonight,” Christie said.
He had gotten a Horizon bill.
“While not all that I sought out when I laid out all my concerns in my February budget speech are there, that’s the nature of compromise,” said Christie.
And he gloated at having forced the Assembly speaker to blink.
“For the last two weeks, I was told that no bill on Horizon would be passed now, that reform had to wait. That was unacceptable to me, and despite the doubts of some folks tonight we’ve achieved the results I asked for in February,” the governor said.
But Christie had wanted millions of dollars from Horizon’s reserve funds for the state, and he didn’t get that.
“We have finally capped the excess profits of Horizon and we’re ensuring that Horizon’s excess profits are returned directly to the policy holders,” he said.
Nonetheless, he claimed victory.
“Those who said as late as Friday that they would not even discuss a Horizon bill have now been proven wrong,” Christie said.
After Christie spoke, the Assembly went to work, passing the budget bill and then the Horizon bill. Lawmakers frustrated during the shutdown savored the moment.
“It was definitely worth the wait. It was worth the fight. I think a lot of people sitting here thought that the governor wouldn’t live up to his word and would cut the programs. It’s always beneficial to come to the table, work together, work across the line,” said Assemblyman Lou Greenwald.
“I’m just happy. There’s no reason to shutdown government over a bill, or over an issue, there’s always middle ground. And I do have to thank the speaker now because he at some point decided to see middle ground and that wasn’t easy for him but he did it,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said.
Over in the Senate they reversed the order, passing the Horizon bill first 33 to 1, and then the budget on a party-line vote of 21 to 14.
“It’s been a long day, it’s been a long weekend. It’s a shame it ever came to this. It didn’t have to come to this. I think it’s probably the best budget, as chairman, that I’ve seen in the last eight years. There’s a lot of priorities in this budget and I’m glad the Senate stuck together,” Budget Committee Chair Sen. Paul Sarlo said.
“I think the Legislature should have come to a solution long before now. It’s a shame the people of New Jersey were impacted by this,” said Minority Leader Sen. Tom Kean Jr.
Sen. Jeff Van Drew said, “It should have never happened. I mean, the people have a right to be angry. I would be angry as well. We have a responsibility to get the budget on time. Nevertheless, it’s better to get it done now than not, so we’re going to move forward and hopefully this doesn’t happen ever again.”
It was an epic fight, this budget battle of 2017. Students of New Jersey politics will be replaying it and discussing it for years to come.