NJ Legislators Address Leftover Business from Budget Shutdown

John Reitmeyer | August 1, 2017 | Politics
Getting back pay to state workers sidelined by impasse is top priority, but avoiding another Beachgate by keeping future governors off shuttered state property is also in the works

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A month has passed since a budget impasse triggered the state’s first government shutdown in over a decade, but lawmakers in Trenton are still focused on several issues that came up while the government offices were shuttered, including compensating employees for lost time and keeping governors from having access to a now-infamous beach house during future shutdowns.

The Assembly voted overwhelmingly yesterday in a rare late-July session to approve legislation that would clear the way for as many as 35,000 workers to receive back pay for hours lost to the July 1-July 3 shutdown. That action follows the Senate’s mid-July vote in favor of the same measure, meaning the issue is now in the hands of Gov. Chris Christie.

The back-pay legislation, which Christie is expected to sign, advanced alongside two other bills that were inspired by the three-day shutdown. They include a measure that would prohibit governors from using the official gubernatorial vacation house at Island Beach State Park during a state-government shutdown. It was introduced after Christie drew national attention for staying at the beach house during the shutdown, even as the park itself was closed off to all other New Jersey residents because of the impasse.

Legislating fun in the sun

Another bill that cleared the Assembly yesterday calls for state parks like Island Beach State Park to remain open during future government shutdowns. The bipartisan measure’s advancement won praise from tourism officials who complained that last month’s shutdown ruined vacation plans that were made before the shutdown took hold.

The government shutdown, the state’s first in over a decade, started just after midnight on July 1, as Christie and lawmakers missed a deadline that’s set in the state constitution for the enactment of a new fiscal-year spending plan. The impasse came as lingering political 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 in the weeks leading up to the deadline.

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. It also triggers a shutdown of government services deemed “nonessential,” impacting state parks, state-run beaches, and in-person Motor Vehicle Commission services, among other operations. This year’s shutdown furloughed roughly 30,000 to 35,000 public workers over parts of the three days, meaning the workers were not paid for time lost to the impasse.

The back-pay legislation that passed the Assembly yesterday would provide compensation to “any involuntarily furloughed Executive branch, Judicial branch, or Legislative branch employee.” If signed into law, the measure would take effect immediately, and be retroactive to July 1.

Disrupted household budgets

Assemblywoman Elizabeth Maher Muoio (D-Mercer) said losing even one or two days’ worth of pay can have a big impact on state workers’ household budgets, including the many who live in her district. “The hardworking and dedicated employees of this state should not be penalized for something beyond their control,” said Muoio, a primary sponsor of the legislation.

The bill’s approval was lauded by Hetty Rosenstein, state director for the Communication Workers of America union, whose members rallied on the steps of the State House last month to urge lawmakers to pass the legislation providing back pay.

“We also thank the legislative leaders — from both houses — for making sure our members, who were locked out during the shutdown, are paid,” Rosenstein said.

How much is owed to workers?

But it’s unclear exactly how much money is owed to the workers. Treasury spokesman Willem Rijksen said yesterday that the final figure is still being tabulated as things like vacation time and sick pay are being accounted for. Once Christie signs the bill, getting the back pay to the workers would occur as soon as possible, Rijksen said.

“The exact timing for issuing back pay to State employees will be determined following the bill’s enactment and will be done as quickly as the payroll system and cycle reasonably allow,” he said.

Also passing the Assembly with overwhelming support yesterday was a measure sponsored by Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) that would render the gubernatorial vacation home at Island Beach State Park off-limits to the governor during a future government shutdown. Like the Drumthwacket mansion in Princeton, the vacation house on Island Beach State Park is provided to governors as an official residence at the Shore. But a NJ Advance Media photograph of Christie lounging on the beach with his family during the shutdown ended up becoming national news as it showed the island itself was completely vacant.

Wisniewski said Christie’s decision to stay at the beach house during the shutdown rubbed “salt in the wounds” of families who were hoping to use the park but were not allowed to.

“If a beach is closed because of a state shutdown, it ought to be closed to everybody,” Wisniewski said. “Having it open to the governor and his guests while it’s closed to all the other New Jersey residents who are paying for them to be there isn’t right and it isn’t fair.”

But if a bill sponsored by Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) and several other lawmakers eventually becomes law, state parks like Island Beach State Park would be forced to remain open even if the government is shut down due to a budget impasse. The measure would allow “State parks and forests, State recreation areas, State historic sites, State natural areas, and State wildlife management areas” to stay open for up to seven days during a shutdown.

Preventing disruption of services

“This legislation will prevent any further disruption of services, during a government shutdown, for families who wish to spend July 4th weekend at a state park or forest or just taking in historic sites,” McKeon said.

“People who work all year and do the right things so they can take a few days off with their family found the gates closed at state parks and beaches,” said Assemblyman Parker Space (R-Sussex). “This isn’t acceptable, and it shouldn’t happen again.”

The bill’s advancement drew immediate praise from the New Jersey Tourism Association, which said the shutdown trashed July 4 vacation plans for many New Jersey families. “This bill makes sure that never happens again,” the association said.