By Michael Catalini | AP,
TRENTON, N.J. — New Jersey’s Democratic assembly speaker said Monday he’s drafting a bill to address the state’s largest health insurer as lawmakers try to break through a budget stalemate that has led to a three-day government shutdown.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto says he can’t provide specific details just yet.
Prieto told The Associated Press that he met Monday with Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield chief executive Bob Marino and “we got some good concepts.”
When asked if a deal will be reached, Prieto smiled and crossed his fingers.
The budget stalemate centers on Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s desire for legislation to overhaul Horizon as part of a $34.7 billion budget that includes a series of Democratic priorities.
Prieto and Marino met with Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney on Monday.
State parks are shut down along with other nonessential state services, including state courts and the motor vehicle offices where people go to get driver’s licenses. Tens of thousands of state workers are furloughed until Christie signs off on a state budget.
Christie was catching Monday heat for spending time on a beach to which he had blocked public access with his family.
Spokesman Brian Murray said the governor was back in Trenton on Monday, a day after he was photographed by NJ.com at a closed state park lounging in a beach chair in sandals, shorts and a T-shirt.
Here’s a closer look at the standoff over the $34.7 billion budget:
BATTLE OF EGOS
On the surface the budget stalemate revolves around Christie’s desire to overhaul Horizon, but also in play are the strong personalities of the three principals responsible for passing the budget.
Christie, the brash, tell-it-like-it-is former federal prosecutor whose presidential campaign derailed in part because President Donald Trump played that role better, has staked his final year as governor on overhauling the nonprofit insurer in exchange for his support of more than $300 million worth of Democratic spending priorities.
Christie describes himself as “Mr. Reasonable” but won’t waive his line-item authority that has some Democrats worried.
Sweeney is a former ironworker and current union boss as well as the top elected Democrat for the past eight years. He’s holding the line on Horizon because he trusts Christie will make good on a gentleman’s agreement not to line-item veto Democratic priorities.
And Prieto is a onetime plumber and code-enforcement official from Hudson County, long considered one of the state’s hardest-edged political regions, known for old-school party boss politics. Prieto’s speakership is under threat from another lawmaker who’s already announced a bid against him.
“Egos have to go out the door,” Sweeney said, adding there’s no place for drawing lines in the sand.
Prieto and Marino exited a meeting with Sweeney after about an hour Monday and described the talks as “good,” but offered no details.
Marino said he thinks Prieto and Sweeney understand his position and that there were “a lot of open minds in that room.”
Sweeney said earlier that it’s worth passing the Horizon legislation to get the spending priorities, including $150 million in revamped education spending that he fought for.
But he said that the shutdown won’t be over immediately, if a compromise is reached, because the bill would still have to go through committee for a vote.
Prieto says it’s not worth tweaking the insurer as congressional Republicans contemplate their own health care overhaul. He also says the changes could lead to premium increases.
The Assembly remained open, but deadlocked on a budget vote.
Christie argues that the company can be subject to legislation because it was established by statute and four of its board members are appointed by the governor.
The company opposes the changes and disagrees with Christie’s reading of the law.
CASINOS AT RISK?
New Jersey officials are looking for ways to ensure that Atlantic City’s casinos can remain open if the shutdown extends past Friday.
A 2008 law passed after the state’s last government shutdown allowed casinos to remain open for up to seven days of a government shutdown.
But lawmakers and regulators are looking for ways to prevent the casinos from having to shut down if the impasse continues beyond Friday just as they are regaining momentum after a disastrous three-year period that saw five of the 12 casinos shut down.
Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, an Atlantic City-area Democrat, introduced a bill Friday that would let the casinos stay open throughout a state government shutdown.
Contact Catalini at https://twitter.com/mikecatalini
Associated Press writer Wayne Parry in Atlantic City contributed to this story.
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