Budget deal reached — NJ government (and parks!) will reopen
New Jersey's state Senate president and Assembly speaker have reached a deal to pass a state budget, and to reopen New Jersey government.
State Parks will reopen Tuesday, Independence Day, the state DEP announced shortly after the deal was announced late Monday night.
Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney And Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto announced their agreement at a press conference Monday night at 10 p.m., as the third day of the state shutdown drew to a close. The Assembly later voted 52-23, with one abstention, to pass the budget. The Senate approved it 21-14.
At issue had been a stalemate over whether to pass, along with the budget, legislation that would restructure Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield — a move Christie backed as part of a plan to use its surplus for opioid addiction programs.
Senate Democrats had already agreed to a budget and to the Horizon measure. But Prieto had refused to let the Horizon bill come up for a vote — even though many of his fellow Assembly Democrats were in favor of passing it. Christie had threatened to use his line-item veto program to strike expenditures Democrats preferred if no Horizon legislation was in place.
Christie confirmed Monday night he won't use his line-item veto slash any of the items Democrats had added into the budget — even though it cost him the chance to use the reserve money for drug treatment programs.
Prieto, Sweeney and Horizon chief executive Bob Marino met Monday to hammer out a new version of the Horizon legislation. The new deal calls for a cap on Horizon's reserve fund and a requirement that any money Horizon collects beyond that be used "for the benefit of its subscribers." The deal sets up a process for Horizon to submit a plan to the Department of Banking and Insurance any plans for spending above its cap.
It also gives the Senate and Assembly members on Horizon's board. The board will consist of 17 members, including 11 appointed by Horizon and four appointed by the governor.
The bill expands reporting requirements for health services corporations, and requires some information — such as executive compensation — to be posted online.
"Equally important is what this bill does not do," Senator Joseph F. Vitale, who drafted the new legislation, said in a news release. "It will not raise premiums for Horizon customers. It will not take away anyone's health insurance. And it will not give any governor the power to take millions of dollars in Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield reserves to pay for state programs."
No determination would be made about Horizon's reserves until April 1 of next year — after Christie is out of office.
"I gave in on one point," Christie said Monday night of losing the reserve money for opioid programs. "But I got a bill that reforms them significantly,"
He said the legislation meant "no more operating in the shadows for Horizon."
The bill does not make Horizon a charitable organization or make it an "insurer of last resort," as an earlier proposal called for. That would have forced it to take on customers other insurance companies turn away. It has not had that designation since the early 1990s.
Horizon CEO Robert Marino, in a statement issued Monday night, said the new legislation "achieves a goal we established when the governor first introduced the idea of taking our reserves. Horizon could only agree to legislation that is reasonable, avoids higher costs for our members and that does not impose unfair or excessive obligations.
At Monday night's press conference, the legislative leaders said they expected the governor would sign an order reopening state parks, including Island Beach State Park, which were closed to the public during the shutdown. Christie himself prompted controversy by visiting his beach house there — an official residence for the governor — while the public was turned away.
The DEP announcement confirmed that was the case — all "state parks, forests, historic sites and recreation areas will re-open on Tuesday, July 4, 2017, including Liberty State Park and Island Beach State Park in the morning," it said.
The shutdown had also put tens of thousands of state employees temporarily out of work, and closed several government offices, including the Motor Vehicle Commission. However, because it started as the holiday weekend began, Monday was the only workweek day affected.
Monday night, waiting on a formal vote from the legislature, Christie said that when he and the legislature were done making the budget official, "I'll go back to the beach. That's where my family is tonight, and that's where I'll go back to."
Christie's own press conference began at 11 and can be seen here:
This is a breaking story and is being updated frequently. Check back for additional details.
— With reporting by Michael Symons
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