State budget and Horizon bill still up in the air

By Michael Aron
Chief Political Correspondent

Just three days to go and the budget’s tied up in knots, there are four bills or issues in play and being used as leverage by the key players.

There is the budget bill itself, there are changes in the school funding formula, there’s the governor’s proposal to transfer lottery proceeds to the pension system and Christie’s effort to tap Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield‘s reserve fund to help the state pay for health care programs.

Christie was noncommittal today about what he’ll sign and what he won’t.

“We’ll make decisions, Michael, based upon whatever lands on my desk so I’m not going to prejudge any of that stuff as you know I normally do not. But what I will say is that it’s good to have this conversation. I’ve been trying to initiate this conversation for months and I’m glad we’re having it,” Christie said.

The Horizon issue is the most contentious. The state constitution prohibits legislation aimed at one person or one business. Christie was asked today why he is singling out this one health insurance company.

“They’re the only nonprofit insurer in the state. They are unique. They are a nonprofit insurer with a charitable mission so designated by law by the state of New Jersey. They didn’t just appear out of nowhere. They are a creation of the state. They are not a private company. They are a nonprofit, public insurer,” said Christie.

Yesterday the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees approved some of these bills, including the budget and the lottery. The Horizon bill cleared the Senate Committee 11-1 but is not on the board list for Thursday in the Assembly.

In the Senate, Health Committee Chairman Joe Vitale has reshaped the governor’s plan.

The Assembly sponsor, Eliana Pintor-Marin, says it’s a a better bill now.

“I’m hoping that with Sen. Vitale’s changes to the bill, and we heard it on the Senate yesterday, there was some thoughtful conversation, there were some good questions and good back and forth and I am kind of hoping that some of the things were taken out of context beforehand and I am hoping that the conversation yesterday lead people to understand what the bill really does,” Vitale said.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is against the Horizon bill. So are the two gubernatorial candidates, Phil Murphy and Kim Guadagno.

The Senate President Steve Sweeney supports it.

Yesterday Horizon had dozens of its employees and supporters at the State House to lobby against the bill. Christie mocked that effort today.

“Everybody’s who’s talking about concerns about policyholder money, I read a Philadelphia Inquirer story that said they have ten different in-house lobbyists, five different outside lobbyists and they put on that whole carnival yesterday. Maybe you all should be asking how much that cost,” Christie said.

Christie was in Trenton today announcing a $9 million grant for new housing in the city. If he plays hardball on Horizon and holds the budget hostage to it, there could be a shutdown of state government this weekend.

“You’ve been around long enough and seen this enough, you know how this works. And the fact is that there are even more than four issues at play, there’s lots of other stuff going on too. My job as governor in my eighth year and my ninth budget, when you count the first budget we had to do when we came in February 2010 is to keep my head about me. It’s my job. I’ll keep my head about me and we’ll get where we need to get to. We’ve gotten there every time on my watch. I don’t know what the path will be this time, but what, we’ve got another 72 hours or so, I’m not worried,” said Christie.

Christie sounded pretty confident this will all get sorted out before midnight Friday, the constitutional deadline. A shutdown of state government remains a slim possibility.