It was more like a snow day than a lengthy furlough — the working hours public employees lost during the messy state government shutdown earlier this month — and Gov. Chris Christie and the Democratic legislative leaders have come up with a way to make it right. The state Senate yesterday overwhelmingly approved a bipartisan measure that makes it clear the Legislature will pay workers who were forced off the job during the July 1 – July 3 budget impasse.
That action followed an apparent change of heart on the back-pay issue by Christie, who had previously warned lawmakers before the impasse took hold that they shouldn’t count on him signing off on reimbursements. But earlier this week, a spokesman for the second-term Republican said Christie would approve the reimbursements if lawmakers could get a bill to his desk to authorize the appropriation properly under the state constitution.
Although the back-pay legislation called for by Christie has yet to be considered in the Assembly, Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) promised public workers during a union rally in Trenton yesterday that his house would also pass the measure “before the end of the month.” The signal that Prieto is now in line with the legislative solution came after he’d previously maintained that Christie already had the authority to make sure workers were paid immediately through the $34.7 billion state budget that was enacted during the early morning hours of July 4 to end the shutdown.
Missing the midnight deadline
The political quarreling over the back-pay issue comes on the heels of the government shutdown that occurred at the beginning of the month, which saw Christie and lawmakers miss a midnight June 30 deadline for a new state-spending plan as disagreements over school funding and a bill seeking to rewrite how the state regulates Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest insurer, were dragged into the budget debate.
Under the state constitution, if a new spending plan isn’t in place when the fiscal year begins on July 1, the Treasury is barred from spending any money. That forced a shutdown of the government, impacting state parks, state-run beaches, and in-person Motor Vehicle Commission services, among other operations. Christie’s administration has estimated the shutdown furloughed roughly 30,000 to 35,000 public workers over parts of the three days, but officials have not said exactly how much back pay the workers are owed.
Not long after the budget deadlock was broken, the next political dispute over employee back pay emerged. Prieto initially urged Christie to use executive authority to ensure that public workers would be reimbursed right away for their missed time. But the governor issued a letter in response that suggested his hands were tied by the state constitution. Christie also cited as a precedent the state’s last government shutdown in 2006, which saw lawmakers write specific language into the budget that broke that year’s eight-day impasse calling for all furloughed employees to be made whole.
A letter to Prieto
“You could have passed an appropriation bill in a timely manner, or you could have included an appropriation for this purpose in the bill you belatedly sent to my desk, like the Legislature did in 2006,” Christie wrote in the letter to Prieto.
“Instead, you ignored the issue altogether in your budget bill and then sent me a letter that erroneously asks me to do something that is unlawful,” the letter said.
Prieto responded to Christie yesterday by saying the governor has found creative ways to work around state financial restrictions in the past. He cited as an example this year’s decision by Christie to float $300 million in bonds through the New Jersey Economic Development Authority to pay for a four-year renovation of the State House in Trenton without first getting approval from lawmakers or voters.
“He has found ways of getting things accomplished,” Prieto said. “You can find a way to pay these workers.”
The infamous beach shot
During yesterday’s union rally, the Assembly leader also made a reference to photos that were taken during the shutdown of Christie and his family spending time at the gubernatorial vacation home on Island Beach State Park, even as the park itself was closed to the public because of the budget impasse. One of the union members participating in the rally also held up a large sign with an image of a man resembling Christie sitting in a beach chair under the words “Show Us The Money.”
“We ended up being used as leverage,” Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communication Workers of America, said during the rally. “All of this is bad for us, and it’s bad public policy.”
Meanwhile, in the Senate yesterday, the bill that would ensure that the workers receive their reimbursements for missed time on the job won bipartisan praise as it easily passed by a 31-0 margin.
Under the bill’s language “any involuntarily furloughed Executive branch, Judicial branch, or Legislative branch employee shall promptly receive their full salary or wage payment despite the shut down of State programs and functions.” If signed into law, the measure would take effect immediately, and be retroactive to July 1.
Making the workers whole
Sweeney, a primary sponsor of the bill, said once Christie agreed that the workers should be made whole after the shutdown it was important to draft the legislation that the governor called for.
“It wasn’t easy getting members here today, believe me, because everyone makes plans for the summer,” Sweeney said. “I’m extremely grateful that the Republicans and Democrats combined got this passed.”
A date has yet to be set for the 80-member Assembly to consider the measure, but Prieto said it’s just a matter of finding a day when enough members can make it to Trenton to ensure it’s approved.
“Obviously, my house is a lot bigger than the Senate so that’s why it’s a little more difficult to try and get 41 here,” he said.