State House scrambles on the eve of budget deadline

By Briana Vannozzi

With battle lines drawn Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto today held his ground vowing to move the budget bill through without a vote on the controversial legislation to restructure the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.

“It won’t be on me. I will put the bill up and then it will be on those members, and those members will have to answer to the voters,” Prieto said.

At risk is the potential for a government shutdown. The Horizon bill has been the linchpin in getting a state budget passed before the July 1 deadline. Democrats are bitterly divided. The Senate passed their own version earlier this week pitting the leaders of both houses against one another. Gov. Christie wants to use $300 million of the insurance company’s reserve funds to pay for health programs like addiction treatment. He’s promised to sign off on new spending for the state’s troubled school funding formula in exchange for its passage. And he’s likely to take his veto pen to dozens of budget items Democrats hold near and dear to their heart if he doesn’t get his way.

“I would never question the word of Chris Christie. If he says he’s going to red line parts of the budget, I’m sure he will. I will never test his endurance or strength or word,” said Assemblyman Jon Bramnick.

Today, Prieto said the Senate had yet to send this bill to his house, to even consider posting, though that’s a formality. The talk all week has been about the political capital at stake, with reports circulating backroom deals were being made to oust Prieto from his leadership role before the budget deadline. Today he brushed that off.

“At the end of the day I always do the right thing. And I work for the people in the state of New Jersey, so I can’t worry about anything of that nature. So I will be putting a budget up and hopefully we’ll get it through because it’s a budget that has good priorities for the Democratic party and helps a lot of people in New Jersey,” Prieto said.

We asked if there’s a risk involved.

“To be honest with you, I don’t see it that way. I see that this is about the issues so anything else outside of this, it is what it is,” he said.

“My concern is this: Democrats are in the majority. They are supposed to be in charge of the house of the Assembly and they don’t seem to be able to compromise among themselves. That’s the problem right now,” Bramnick said.

Bramnick said he has real concerns about a shutdown, anticipating this could go to the midnight deadline on June 30, and indicated enough support is there in the Assembly to get the Horizon bill through and be done with the budget.

“Some version of it would pass, maybe not the Vitale version per se, but some version very close, or similar, or amended slightly,” said Bramnick.

“It’s all going to depend what happens in the Assembly. From the Senate’s perspective we’ve done our work. The Senate doesn’t believe the Horizon bill is as bad as people are making it out to be,” said Budget Chairman Sen. Paul Sarlo

The clock is ticking.