- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sounded confident on Tuesday that a government shutdown could be avoided despite an approaching deadline and a lingering disagreement over changes to the state’s largest health insurer the governor has sought but lawmakers oppose.

Christie declined to address the details of the nearly $35 billion spending plan that passed Democrat-led Assembly and Senate budget committees on Monday night, but said the uncertainty surrounding budget discussions is a regular part of the process.

“I’m not worried. We haven’t had a shutdown on my watch,” Christie said at an unrelated event in Trenton.

He also once again attacked Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield and disputed the company’s notion that it’s a private company and disputed his critics who say he’s simply pushing for a “money grab.”

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

Horizon public affairs manager Kevin McArdle defended the company, saying that it’s a tax-paying nonprofit.

“We’ll continue to oppose his radical plan that increases premiums and undermines the stability of the insurance that 3.8 million New Jerseyans rely on for health care,” he said in a statement.

Christie’s push to overhaul the insurer’s board, enact transparency requirements and tap into the company’s surplus to fund opioid addiction is at the center of budget discussions. Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is opposed to moving any Horizon legislation. Senate President Steve Sweeney has backed a different proposal than Christie‘s, which includes a requirement that Horizon spend excess surplus on programs to benefit the public and policyholders.

Christie called it a good plan, but hasn’t said he’d sign it.

Lawmakers on Monday approved a Democratic plan for school funding that provides $100 million in new aid for underfunded school districts, $25 million to expand pre-kindergarten and $25 million for special education. It also includes $31 million in aid that was given to some districts to prevent a drop in funding under the 2008 school funding formula, known as “adjustment aid.”

That’s a change from the $46 million Democrats had sought earlier and reflects Christie’s suggestions, lawmakers said.

They also included funding for Democratic legislative priorities, including about $24 million for security at nonpublic schools and $8 million for prisoner re-entry programs.

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.

Horizon is a nonprofit, and describes itself as a 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.

Christie is engaged in a public fight against Horizon, even spotlighting 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.

This is Christie’s final budget. The term-limited, two-term governor will leave office in January.

Republican gubernatorial nominee Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said Tuesday in a tweet that “last minute” budget talks are not the time to consider overhauling the state’s health care system, and Democratic nominee Phil Murphy has called Christie’s Horizon proposal a “raid” and added that Democrats need more time to vet the proposal.

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.

Christie’s administration says the value of the lottery is assessed at $13.5 billion and could be used to offset the unfunded liabilities in the pension funds.

The administration says that would immediately shrink the gap, which it estimates at $49 billion, but some other calculations say could be as high as $136 billion.

Using the state’s evaluation of those unfunded liabilities of $49 billion, that would shrink the gap significantly and immediately.

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

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