The shutdown may be over, but the mudslinging hasn’t stopped in Trenton.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is now accusing Gov. Chris Christie of violating his agreement to sign off on Democratic spending proposals in exchange for legislation to restructure Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey.
But the governor’s office says Christie did exactly what he promised to do and pushed back aggressively — and immediately — on the claims to the contrary.
At issue is the governor’s line-item veto of numerous spending proposals included in the nearly $35 billion budget lawmakers sent to Christie early Tuesday morning, after a three-day shutdown of non-essential government services.
Christie stripped language involving things like food assistance benefits, pre-school expansion and paid leave claims.
“Gov. Christie has broken his word yet again, and no one should be surprised,” Prieto, a Hudson County Democrat, said in a statement. “Anyone who contends Gov. Christie is an honest man has spent too much time sitting in the sun with him or in traffic on the George Washington Bridge.”
In exchange for the Horizon legislation, Christie had agreed to sign off on $325 million in Democratic spending priorities, including a boost to school funding and 72 other line items. The governor’s office says he did exactly what he said he would do — keep those measures in place while removing other items that were included in the budget.
“They are all in the signed budget,” spokesman Brian Murray said in a statement. “The Governor never agreed to sign an unbalanced budget by preserving every additional spending request sneakily tucked into the budget and not paid for by revenue. Speaker Prieto’s statement is false and all the honest parties to our agreement know it.”
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who enjoys a much closer relationship with the governor than Prieto, did not raise any concerns about the final budget. Sweeney, a South Jersey Democrat, fought to secure a deal on the Horizon legislation and was unwilling to pass a budget until he did so.
His office said the agreement the Democrats had with the governor “was to fund the 73 Democratic spending priorities in the Democratic budget plan,” and that’s what happened.
The final budget provides “new funding for programs and policies that reflect the principles of Democrats and that address the real-life needs of the people of New Jersey, including aid for the most vulnerable,” spokesman Richard McGrath said.
“For the first time in nearly a decade we are increasing state aid for schools and for the first time in years we are providing support for services that help those most in need,” McGrath said. “We are fortunate that these priorities were not sacrificed for the sake of those more interested in making political statements.”
Tom Hester Jr., a spokesman for Prieto, said the language Christie vetoed was in some cases tied in with those 73 Democratic priorities. In the case of pre-school funding, for example, the vetoed language would have dedicated the new money to “at-risk children.” He said the line item veto “dilutes” what had been achieved.
He also said Murray was wrong to suggest anything was “sneakily tucked into the budget.”
“The language document was posted online on June 26 for all to see,” he said.
The governor’s office said the pre-school funding change was made so the state could “focus the money to districts that are actually ready to start up pre-schools.”
There was reasoning given, too, to other line-item vetoes, like changes to the food assistance program and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The language Democrats had included, the governor’s office said, “could result in the distribution of benefits without regard to actual heating and cooling expenses,” a violation of federal guidelines.
Beyond the liberal proposals, some of the vetoes targeted language that would have benefited narrow groups. For example, language had been added to the budget that would direct more money to the Meadowlands district when hotel tax revenue comes up short. The hotel tax routinely underperforms.
“This language is deleted because it is an open-ended appropriation, requiring the State to make direct payments to municipalities, as a result of insufficient local assessment collections,” Christie wrote in his veto.
Christie also vetoed language that would have prevented him from taking some of the money won by the state in environmental lawsuits for use in the general fund. Democrats — many of whom knew Christie would veto it — inserted language saying the remainder above $50 million would be split 50/50 for environmental remediation and the general fund.
Christie did just what the Democrats expected.
"The Legislature did not take into account the financial impact of this change," Christie wrote in explaining the veto.
A full copy of the items Christie vetoed can be read here.
David Giambusso contributed to this report