- Associated Press - Monday, June 26, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey lawmakers put a nearly $35 billion spending plan on track to Gov. Chris Christie’s desk, approving the fiscal year 2018 budget.

The Assembly and Senate budget committees OK’d the spending blueprint late Monday, setting up votes by the Democrat-led chambers Thursday.

It’s unclear whether Christie would support the measure. Lawmakers included one of the governor’s signature proposals in the document: transferring the state lottery as an asset to the debt-laden public pension.

They also added a Democratic plan for school funding that adds roughly $200 million, including for pre-kindergarten and special education, as well as roughly $200 million in other Democratic spending priorities.

Christie said earlier Monday during his regular radio call-in show that he was ready to sign a budget, but added that he wasn’t going to negotiate it in public.

“I don’t believe there is any reason for there to be a government shutdown and if there is I’m not shutting it down,” Christie said.

If a balanced budget is not signed before July 1, nonessential state functions would close down. Lawmakers also have expressed reluctance to shut down government.

At issue is Christie’s proposal to use $300 million from Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield’s surplus to finance an opioid addiction program, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said. Prieto opposes the plan and says his caucus would not vote for legislation affecting Horizon as part of the budget.

Prieto said late Monday that his position had not changed.

Horizon is a nonprofit, private health service corporation, with four board members appointed by the governor. It’s the state’s largest health insurer, with nearly 4 million members.

On Monday, dozens of Horizon supporters lined up outside the statehouse to protest Christie’s and the Senate proposals, and a video billboard by the Latino Consumer Alliance as part a public relations campaign against the measures played a video clip on loop outside the state building where legislative hearings were taking place. Horizon public affairs manager Kevin McArdle estimated about 300 employees were on hand. He said attendance wasn’t required.

Businessman and publisher Steve Forbes, who has been a vocal opponent of Christie’s plan, attacked it during a conference call with reporters, calling it “political extortion.”

“This is a raid by Trenton politicians,” Forbes said.

Christie attacked the displays as showy and costly.

“They were out there spending money like they were Goldman Sachs,” he said.

The Senate budget committee passed new Horizon legislation that includes adding subscriber-elected members to Horizon’s board, in line with Christie’s proposal. Christie declined to give his position on the bill but called it a “pretty good start.”

The bill also would set up a range for Horizon’s surplus, with excess being required to come up with a plan to spend down the cash to benefit policyholders.

The Senate and Assembly panels also approved Christie’s legislation to transfer the lottery to the public pension as an asset, which Christie also sought as part of budget negotiations.

In return, Prieto has said Christie agreed to Prieto and Sweeney’s school funding overhaul, which would provide nearly $200 million, but with unspecified “tweaks” proposed by the governor.

Christie on Friday signed an executive order requiring state agencies to publish opinions and decisions online, a move apparently aimed at Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, which was fined $15.5 million for Medicaid contract violations.

Christie spotlighted the citations against the insurer last week over its Medicaid contract compliance with the state, which the governor said predates his effort to use Horizon’s surplus.

Christie didn’t share the citations, and an attempt to obtain the documents through an Open Public Records Act request resulted in a response that said contractual obligations prevented the release of the documents but that the administration was reaching out to Horizon to try to release them.

Friday’s executive order was retroactive.

This is Christie’s final budget. The term-limited, two-term governor will leave office January after the Nov. 7 election.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno has not weighed in on the budget, but Democratic nominee Phil Murphy has called Christie’s Horizon proposal a “raid” and added that Democrats need more time to vet the proposal.


Contact Catalini at https://www.twitter.com/mikecatalini

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