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June 29, 2017

N.J. Assembly halts voting on budget as shutdown looms

Voting was halted Thursday in the New Jersey Assembly on the state’s $34.7 billion budget, but its Democratic leader vowed to bring the measure up for another vote.

A stalemate over Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s proposal to overhaul the state’s largest health insurer raises the threat of a government shutdown, the Associated Press reported.

The Assembly’s failure to pass the budget on the first try Thursday afternoon threw the process into confusion with the prospects of a state government shutdown only a day away if no budget makes it to Christie’s desk.

The Democrat-led state Senate is behind a version of the proposal, but Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto insisted that he will not bring it up for a vote this week. He promised to hold another vote on the budget measure, and the Senate still needs to vote on the budget plan as well.

Thursday is the final legislative day before the summer break.

If no budget is passed, a shutdown would happen at midnight Friday. Here's what that could mean for residents.

The fiscal year 2018 budget proposes more than $100 million for school aid and $25 million apiece for pre-kindergarten and special education programs.

The budget also funds Democratic priorities, such as a program giving financial assistance to lower-income students and additional funding for security at nonpublic schools.

But there is a huge sticking point.

Lame duck governor Christie is pushing an overhaul to the state’s largest health insurer’s board, enacting new transparency legislation and tapping its surplus to fund his final pet project, combating the opioid epidemic.

But Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield and Prieto oppose those efforts. And Thursday morning he said he is unwilling to negotiate.

Meanwhile, an alliance of some Democrats members in the Assembly have plotted to replace Prieto.

But a key player, Eliana Pintor Marin, an assemblywoman from Essex County, has backed away from a plan to have her take over the speakership temporarily once Prieto is ousted.

As if that were not enough, the Senate has drafted its own version of a Horizon bill.

In a key difference, the Senate bill does not directly grant the state access to Horizon’s surplus.

Instead, the legislation requires that Horizon maintain a range for its surplus and if that’s exceeded the nonprofit must use the excess for the good of the public and ratepayers.

Christie wanted the surplus to fund inpatient and outpatient drug addiction treatment.

Republican Senator Jennifer Beck, a member of the budget committee, is on record saying she won't vote for the proposal. So is Democrat Ray Lesniak, a state senator from Union.

The Horizon legislation is not a “must-pass” in the same way lawmakers and Christie have to enact a balanced budget by July 1.

But Christie has conditioned his signing of the budget, including the Democratic priorities and additional school funding, on the passage of the Horizon legislation.

Also, Christie has not publicly embraced the Senate bill, which Senate President Steve Sweeney has said he has the votes to pass.

On Wednesday, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said budget talks appear stalemated.

“I am convinced this is all about who can claim a win,” she said.