Christie orders government shutdown amid budget impasse

By MICHAEL CATALINI Markets Associated Press

New Jersey's state government has shut down for the first time under Republican Gov. Chris Christie after he and the Democrat-led Legislature failed to reach an agreement on a budget by the deadline at midnight Friday.

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Christie, a former GOP presidential candidate and adviser to President Donald Trump who is leading the White House's anti-opioid commission, announced the shutdown of the state's nonessential services in an executive order.

The shutdown means state parks and nonessential services such as the Motor Vehicle Commission are shutting down just ahead of the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Prisons, the state police and casinos will remain open.

Christie, who is deeply unpopular in the state as he heads into his final six months in office, made supporting a $34.7 billion budget that includes 73 Democratic priorities contingent on a proposal to overhaul the nonprofit Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, aiming to tap into their surplus to finance drug treatment.

Christie said at a news conference on Friday that he and Senate Democrats, who have agreed with the governor, still had not reached a deal with Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, who refuses to consider the Horizon legislation.

Prieto held a vote Friday on the budget that remained deadlocked with only 26 yes votes out of 41 needed to prevail.

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Christie has called the Legislature into session for Saturday.

Christie was once viewed as the future of his party — a Republican who could compromise with Democrats to produce results and win in a Democratic state. He was praised for his handling of Superstorm Sandy and won re-election in 2013 by double digits.

But Christie's second and final term is wrapping up with his approval ratings at 15 percent. Christie's Horizon proposal has perplexed some conservatives, who have rallied to oppose the legislation. Labor groups that typically align with Democrats, like the state's largest teachers union, also oppose the idea.

Christie has cast Horizon, which opposes the measure and has parked a mobile video billboard displaying anti-Christie videos near his office this week, as a giant, greedy company that is abandoning the charitable mission the state had in mind when the state designated it as a health services corporation. Horizon has four board members appointed by the governor.

Christie referred to the video as "a carnival" and attacked Horizon for spending money on lobbyists.

Businessman and publisher Steve Forbes called Christie's plan political "extortion." Americans for Prosperity has come out against the proposal. The pro-business New Jersey Business and Industry Association, typically a reliable Republican ally, has abandoned Christie on this issue.

Christie said during a news conference Friday that he's not concerned about how he'd be perceived during a shutdown.

"I'm upset because this will inconvenience the people of New Jersey," he said. "That's the only reason I'm upset. Otherwise legacy all that other stuff, please. There will be a long list of things pro and con on my legacy."

The issue comes down to compromise, he said, adding that his willingness to agree to Democratic spending preferences despite having the ability to line-item veto them shows he's bending.

He called himself "Mr. Reasonable."

But Prieto said it's he who has already compromised by accepting the bill to transfer the state's lottery to the pension to reduce its unfunded liability.

He says that he's not budging on the Horizon bill and that it's the wrong time to consider legislation that could affect ratepayers at a time when congressional Republicans are debating "Trumpcare," a clear reference to the delayed GOP efforts to repeal and replace former President Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act.

Christie on Friday presented a 2006 bill that Prieto co-sponsored that proposed using Horizon's surplus as a sign that Prieto was acting hypocritically.

Prieto responded "things change and things evolve."

Invoking Trump could resonate on another level in New Jersey, where Christie enthusiastically backed the president and now leads an anti-opioid addiction panel for the White House. Trump lost New Jersey to Hillary Clinton last year.

The Senate approved a different version of Christie's initial proposal on Horizon.

Rather than tapping directly into Horizon's surplus, it requires that the state insurance commissioner set a range for Horizon's surplus. When the top limit is exceeded, then the excess cash would go toward programs to benefit the public and policyholders under the Senate bill.

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

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This story has been corrected to show that Christie is seeking to shore up the pension by dedicating lottery revenue to it, not transferring the pension to the lottery.