TRENTON, N.J. (CBS/AP) — New Jerseyans were feeling the impact as a state government shutdown took effect Saturday, shuttering parks and other public sites and disrupting ferry service to Liberty and Ellis islands.
Now New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is ordering lawmakers back into session amid a budget impasse.
Christie, a Republican, sent a letter Saturday to Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto ordering the Legislature to meet on Sunday.
Among those affected were a group of Cub Scouts forced to leave a state park campsite and people trying to obtain or renew documents from the state motor vehicle commission, among the agencies closed by the shutdown.
Meanwhile, Republican Gov. Chris Christie and the Democrat-led Legislature planned to return to work Saturday to try to resolve the shutdown, the state’s first since 2006 and the first under Christie. It came about after leaders failed to reach an agreement on a new budget by Friday night’s deadline.
Andrew Spears, a leader with Cub Scout Pack 124 in Tinton Falls, said his group was told to leave Cheesequake State Park on Saturday morning. His group of roughly 45 — including about 25 children — had planned to camp all weekend.
“We knew this was probably coming, but it’s still a shame we have to head out,” Spears said.
Police were turning away vehicles and bicyclists at Island Beach state park in Ocean County. A sign posted at the park entrance featured a photo of Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto and the phone number of his district office in Secaucus, along with the caption: “This facility is CLOSED because of this man.”
When asked about the sign, Christie spokesman Jeremy Rosen said the governor wanted to make sure people knew why the site was shuttered.
“Speaker Prieto single-handedly closed state government,” Rosen said, adding that the governor wanted to make sure families “knew that the facilities were closed and who is responsible.”
Prieto’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Remaining open under the shutdown will be New Jersey Transit, state prisons, the state police, state hospitals and treatment centers as well as casinos, race tracks and the lottery.
Liberty State Park was closed, forcing the suspension of ticket sales and ferry service from the site to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. But the latter two sites remain open.
Christie and the lawmakers are in a stalemate over whether to include legislation affecting the state’s largest health insurer into the state budget. He and Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney agree on legislation to make over Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, including allowing the state insurance commissioner to determine a range for the company’s surplus that if exceeded must be put to use benefiting the public and policyholders.
But Prieto opposes the plan, saying that the legislation could lead to rate hikes on the insurer’s 3.8 million subscribers and that the legislation is separate from the budget.
Christie reiterated his stance during a news conference Saturday, calling the standoff “embarrassing and pointless.” He also repeatedly referred to the government closure as “the speaker’s shutdown.”
“The Speaker’s shutdown was completely unnecessary and completely avoidable. The fact is I was ready to sign a budget yesterday, I’m still willing to sign one today. Speaker Prieto, however, in his refusal to post the Horizon bill for a vote by his fellow elected Assembly members, has impacted the state of New Jersey and its residents unnecessarily,” the governor said. “Many of his fellow Democrats in the Assembly and certainly the folks who voted for this bill in the Senate, along with Republicans in both houses, deserve better from the speaker than what’s really nothing better than a temper tantrum.”
Christie later announced that he would address the full legislature later at the statehouse on Saturday.
Prieto said he will leave open a vote on the $34.7 billion budget that remains deadlocked 26-25, with 24 abstentions, until those 24 abstentions change their mind.
“As we stand here today on Gov. Christie’s Hostage Crisis Day One, I continue to wait for my fellow Democrats who have expressed support for the proposed state budget to cast ‘yes’ votes. The Assembly remains in session and voting on the bill remains open,” Prieto said Saturday. “I have compromised on school funding twice. I have compromised on the state lottery pension legislation. These are budget-related items. The attempt to extort Horizon’s 3.8 million ratepayers is not part of the state budget, and as I’ve said previously, I will not consider it as part of the budget process. I will consider it once a budget is signed. In fact, the Assembly Judiciary Committee stands ready to hold hearings starting this month. I am also ready to consider reasonable alternatives that protect ratepayers, but others must come to the table ready to be equally reasonable. Gov. Christie and the legislators who won’t vote ‘yes’ on the budget are responsible for this unacceptable shutdown. I compromised. I put up a budget bill for a vote. Others now must now do their part and fulfill their responsibilities. The voting board remains open.”
Democratic Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, of Northfield, was among those abstaining. He reasoned that if the governor did not get the Horizon bill, then nearly $150 million in school funding — $9.6 million of which would go to his district — would be line-item vetoed out of the budget.
And indeed, Christie said Friday he would slash the Democratic spending priorities if he did not get the Horizon bill as part of a package deal on the budget.
“It seems like he’s just being stubborn,” Mazzeo said of Prieto. “With all due respect to the speaker, then there should be some type of negotiations.”
But Prieto said it’s lawmakers — fellow Democrats — like Mazzeo who are to blame for the shutdown. He said he is willing to discuss the Horizon legislation but after the budget is resolved.
Christie has balked at the proposal because he says lawmakers plan to leave town to campaign for re-election and he will be a lame duck.
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