Gov. Chris Christie’s administration is freezing $100 million in aid to the state’s depressed cities and social programs favored by Democrats until public employees heed his call to cut $250 million in their health benefits.
Christie’s executive order also bars spending for such programs as domestic violence prevention, Holocaust survivor assistance and court-appointed special advocates for foster children.
Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) faulted the administration for passing the buck. The city of Camden received $12 million in special state aid last year. “You shouldn’t be punishing other worthy programs that help stimulate the economy and do very productive things,” he said Friday. “Obviously I’m worried about turning back the clock on the success that Camden has had. And I can’t imagine that (Christie) would want to do that either.”
The governor first issued that challenge to reduce health benefits costs to the plan design committees” for state workers and school workers in his February budget address. His proposed budget for the fiscal year that began Friday assumed they would find those savings but didn’t tell them how to go about it.
Labor union members of the committees recoiled, noting the governor has no power to order those cuts.
Democrats who control the Legislature didn’t comply with Christie’s request, saying in their budget instead that the committees “may review potential cost-savings …” Christie responded with his executive order late Thursday that said placing that funding in reserve is necessary to ensure the budget stays in balance and is able to respond to emergencies.
He said in his messate that the “permissive nature of the Legislature’s budget language” and the “historical reluctance of some members of the plan design committees to embrace even the most modest of common-sense reforms, calls into question whether the Fiscal Year 2017 health benefits savings embedded in the Legislature’s budget is realistically likely to be achieved.”
Sen. Jim Whalen (D-Atlantic), called the freeze unfair to the municipalities who are counting on that funding, especially Atlantic City, which has just a few months to get its fiscal house in order or risk state takeover. “You don’t get to change the rules in the middle of the game,” he said.
Labor representatives said they worked to reduce costs, eliminate fraud and improve efficiency in the health benefits plans long before the governor’s instructions. The plan design committees tackled expensive compound medications and slashed reimbursements for out-of-network chiropractors, among other changes.
They also agreed to participate in a direct primary care medical home pilot program that pays doctors a fixed salary and a bonus for good clinical outcomes and patient satisfaction, in place of the “fee for service” model in which doctors have incentives to treat as many patients as possible.
Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, said Friday the order is “a typical strategy of the governor to try and pit New Jersey citizens against each other.”
“It’s a my way or the highway approach, where he pits people against each other and doesn’t work for solutions,” Baker said.