Gov. Chris Christie has until May 10 to either sign or veto a bill that creates a New Jersey health insurance exchange, the online marketplace where New Jerseyans will buy federally subsidized health plans in 2014, when the Affordable Care Act requires most Americans to get coverage.
But the U.S. Supreme Court will decide the constitutionality of the ACA in June, and a ruling that strikes down all or part of the law could scuttle the state-run exchanges. Some Trenton insiders think Christie will conditionally veto the exchange bill, thus tossing it back to the legislature for revision and another vote -- and allowing the governor to postpone his decision until after the Supreme Court rules.
During a press conference earlier this week, Christie said he has not yet made a decision. "I have not been briefed yet by my staff on the specifics of the legislation -- whether it's appropriate for signing, for vetoing, or a conditional veto. When I've been briefed by my counsel I'll be in the process of making the decision. I'll decide when I'm ready to decide, but I'm not ready to decide yet."
Christie has been in no hurry to take action on the "New Jersey Health Benefit Exchange Act" which passed the legislature on March 15. Generally the governor has 45 days to act on a bill, and that time is up April 28. If there is no action by the governor, the bill becomes law.
But because the legislature is now on its budget break, the governor has until the day of the next Assembly quorum following the 45-day period, which will be on May 10, according to Tom Hester, spokesman for the Assembly Democrats. The Assembly quorum controls the timing because the bill originated in the Assembly.
Bill author Assemblyman Dr. Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), chairman of the Assembly health committee, in late March urged Christie to sign the bill "For the sake of the 1.3 million uninsured New Jerseyans and the countless others who struggle to afford their existing insurance."
Under the ACA, unless New Jersey can demonstrate by January 2013 that it will be able to operate a state exchange once the law kicks in on January 1, 2014, the federal government could step in and provide an exchange.
The Christie administration has obtained more than $8 million in federal grants to plan for an exchange, and will be eligible for tens of millions of dollars more to get it up and running, once the state enacts necessary legislation. But Christie has said he doesn't want to ratchet up spending until the court rules on the constitutionality of the ACA.
Sen. Robert Singer (R-Monmouth, Ocean) a member of the Senate health committee, voted against the exchange bill and has several objections that he said may be shared by Christie. For one, the bill creates a governing board for the exchange with five voting members, four to be recommended by the legislature and one by the governor: Singer wants a majority of the appointments made by the governor.
For another, the bill pays $50,000 a year to each of the five, part-time, voting members, and Singer said "There is no reason to create another 'how can I give my friends some money' type of legislation by paying members to be on that board." He would staff the board instead with employees of the state Department of Banking and Insurance or the Department of Health "who are already on the payroll."
Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex) said there's no reason to postpone action on the exchange legislation until after the Supreme Court ruling. The ACA is still in force, and no federal court has granted a stay of the ACA while legal challenges to the law made their way to the Supreme Court. She said the $50,000 salary is not excessive. "The board members will be engaged in some very complicated and intensive work, and $50,000 is comparable to the time and effort they would have to put into the exchange to get it up and running. It is a complicated process and I think the money would be well spent."