Character Sketches from Trenton: Vitale, Sweeney’s Strategy and Putting Prieto on His Heels

Govenor Phil Murphy will privately sign a bill, fought for by Senator Joe Vitale for nearly 20 years, expanding the rights of sexual abuse victims. Vitale plans to hold a public ceremony to celebrate this landmark legislation.

TRENTON – It was impossible not to like Vitale (and a pity to have to list his title and more than one name on first reference, so we won’t, because it would detract from the regular effect), who approached the dais yesterday with the avuncular, disheveled charm of one who has just chewed the last remnants of a hot dog at a backyard barbecue with regular folks and now needs no brutally imposing gear to shift in order to begin digesting – in the most unpretentious, off-handed and friendly way – the biggest issues of our time.

Or at least the issue that appeared most nefarious to its many detractors.

It was a testimony to the brilliance of that agency of so-called doom otherwise known as the nexus of Governor Chris Christie and South Jersey to enlist this particular man as messenger, for Vitale (state Senator, Joe) might have been the nicest man in Trenton yesterday. Certainly one did not get the sense from him of foaming self love and ambition. There was no Machiavellian gleam when he entered the room. No smarminess or suggestion of a veiled agenda. We would say this was just “Joe,” but that would be too much. It was Vitale.

He looked so natural that it was hard no to picture him as a regular fixture of the Budget Committee, where Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) had deposited him as a sub for state Senator Linda Greenstein (or Senator Pat Diegnan).

It was also difficult not to believe him.

He was sincere. If Christie has the appearance of one who must crush someone before breakfast in order to have a good day – that was the characterization of someone at the Statehouse yesterday – Vitale looks like the guy who gallantly hurdles a privet hedge to open the door for an old lady. When the committee passed his legislation, his statement brimmed with goodwill.

“I want to thank the members of the Senate Budget Committee for a spirited but thoughtful debate on this important bill. This legislation sets up an open public process to develop an appropriate, efficient surplus range within which Horizon should aim to operate. It is a rational, reasonable approach to current concerns about whether or not there truly is an excessive surplus, and it is based on a Pennsylvania model that is working.

“The bill would provide for a single process to establish an appropriate range for the surplus, and only after that when the reserve exceeds the upper limit of the range would it trigger the involvement of the Department of Banking and Insurance. If that happens, Horizon would be given the opportunity to justify carrying reserves above the range or to decide how that funding will be expended.

“This is not a money-grab, it does not create a slush fund, and it does not put any undue operating costs upon Horizon that would drive up premiums. It simply creates a fair and equitable system that will benefit Horizon and protect policyholders from unnecessary premium increases.

“This bill also contains two other important reforms to improve transparency and create greater oversight, by allowing policyholders to elect three members of the Horizon board and requiring that certain financial information of all insurers be posted online.

“There has been a great deal of misinformation about this legislation. I am pleased we were able to have a full discussion in the committee and to set the record straight about what is actually in the bill, and what is not. I want to thank the members who supported this legislation. I look forward to continuing our discussions and to advancing the bill to the Senate floor.”

Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) disagrees, of course. As for the governor: “I’m not going to get into negotiating on the air,” Christie said on 101.5 FM last night. He hadn’t read the bill, he said. Mired at 15%, the lowest approval rating of a governor in 20 years anywhere in the country – “Lower than Sam Brownback,” a face at the bar in Settimo Cielo told InsiderNJ last night, as if Kansas is a place to which New Jersey should aspire – Christie had reached that point on the political spectrum where he required an incredible infusion of Vitale in the halls of Trenton. All the others would fall short. Everyone else came attached to some appearance of a conflict or some unfortunate protuberance or ticking facial expression that would not give the Horizon compromise bill that necessary uplift of good government and rudimentary human decency.

Christie wants the State of New Jersey to be annually allowed to nibble on Horizon’s $2.4 billion reserve fund in exchange for affirming Democrats’ additional $125 million for school funding proposal in this year’s budget. He waved $300 million at the start, which Vitale calmly walked back yesterday, saying that wouldn’t  -or shouldn’t – happen.

It seemed so reasonable.

“He’s Senator Health,” said one source. “How can you possibly argue with this guy [the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee]?”

Does one welcome the onset of terminal cancer?

Of course not.

Still, the lone person on the committee with a voice that arguably mattered – if elections count as that proving ground by which all unnecessary impurities are purged by BS detecting voters – objected to the bill, sniffing out that one little squirm-inducing seam line.

“I respect Senator Vitale,” announced state Senator Jennifer Beck (R-11), a battleground occupant amid senators who can snooze through gerrymandered reelections come November.

But, “My instinct is if you have policy holders, subscribers of health plans that are paying premiums, they’re a public entity and they essentially overpay… it is not for the State of New Jersey to sweep in and say ‘we’re going to use this to pay for our own pet projects.’ When they overpay, those small businesses should get that money back. It should not become a piggy bank for the State of New Jersey.”

Ironically, or maybe incredibly, Beck had alighted on the same argument Christie had made for years in the war he waged against that pompadoured portion of the Trenton intelligentsia that demanded more taxes in exchange for the power to apportion in rebate checks and other bon bons savings to those Democratic Party-deserving recipients. Hadn’t Christie railed against those bureaucratic elitists for nearly a decade? How dare they decide who gets what back when, as though Trenton were little more than the coliseum and its bread and circuses. Steve Lonegan had a term for it: statehouse social engineering. But Christie was not Lonegan. His fuming on any given subject could become – quite suddenly – crystallized by pragmatic opportunity, or so his longstanding alliance with South Jersey Democrats suggested.

Beck voted no.

But after looking dead, the bill suddenly had life.

Sources who said Vitale’s legislation would die on the senate floor yesterday did a 180 and now proclaimed victory for Sweeney.

He has 16 votes for the Horizon bill in his caucus, and then there were those additions of other Republicans in committee – Bucco-Thompson-Oroho-O’Toole.

“Going away,” a senate source told InsiderNJ.

If Prieto started the week buoyed by the boogeyman of Christie, threatening to not budge on Horizon, now Sweeney could counter – if indeed his votes existed for Horizon, as it appears they do – by sitting on the budget unless Prieto moves on Horizon.

Vitale was no Christie.


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