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State headed to shutdown showdown after Prieto refuses to introduce 'Horizon' bill and budget fails to pass in Assembly

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The state is barreling toward a shutdown after a failed vote on the budget in the Assembly Thursday, one day before the Legislature goes into summer recess.

Gov. Chris Christie criticized Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto on his failure to introduce a bill that would allow the state access to a yet-undefined excess surplus from the state’s largest insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.

Christie said the bill, sponsored by Sen. Joseph Vitale (D-Woodbridge), must be part of a package deal in order for him to sign off on the $35 million budget.

A deal must be made by midnight Friday, or all nonessential state services will close, affecting thousands of state workers.

“(Prieto) needs to explain to his members why he is standing up (for) a multi-billion dollar insurance company,” Christie said. “This is now up to the Speaker. I’m ready to go, Senate President is ready to go, Senate body is ready to go.”

Christie also mocked Prieto for failing to get a full vote on the budget, which only received a vote count of 24-20, even after Prieto stalled it twice. The bill would need 41 votes to pass in the 80-member house.

“More of his members refused to vote on his budget” rather than vote against it, Christie said.

Prieto tweeted Thursday he would hold a vote, but told the Observer early Friday he remains adamant on not posting the Horizon bill.

Christie said he will not sign the budget if it comes to him without the Vitale bill involving Horizon and a lottery bill that would utilize the state lottery as an asset for the state’s pension fund.

"I’m not willing to trade anything else for this," he said.

Vitale said his bill, which passed by a 21-15 vote, is not a money grab by Christie.

Vitale said the bill leaves some decision-making power to Horizon, and the Department of Banking and Insurance, to determine what adequate reserves would be and how to spend any excess for state programs and efforts.

State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), who once sat next to Vitale for an 8-hour marathon grilling of Horizon’s then-new OMNIA plan in 2015, made it clear she is opposed to Vitale's bill.

Gill said that legislators did not have enough time to vet the new “sweeping bill,” which was only introduced last Friday. She highlighted that the bill not only changes the obligations of the insurer, but also its governance structure.

Gill, followed by several other legislators, called for Horizon to return its reserves to policyholders who are the real owners of the money.

Christie later said the money belongs to the taxpayers, who pay for Medicaid which Horizon has profited off, which is why he is pushing the bill through.

“The only obstruction left is the Speaker, who for some reason has decided that the interests of a multi-million dollar insurance company are more important to protect than people’s ability to have the government open and operational,” Christie said.

Left unsaid in the debate is one commonly-known fact: The Vitale bill could be repealed by the next governor.

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