Floor Debate: Senators Pou, Singer Tangle Over Horizon Bill

As senators in Trenton debate revisions to the state's medical marijuana program, Senator Robert Singer sends the bill back to the floor in hopes of removing a provision that would charge sales tax. The initiative failed and Singer, along with other senators, voted for the bill, saying the changes will help many people, even if it's not perfect.

Senate Bill S3218, “The Horizon Bill”, passed through the senate largely but not entirely along parties lines Thursday afternoon.

“These restrictions hurt Horizon members because they deprive them opportunities for better health options and improved costs,” Senator Nellie Pou, a primary sponsor of the bill, said.  “We need to move beyond this and create a level playing field where Horizon is treated the same as every other health insurer in the state, not put at a competitive disadvantage by legislation passed 30 years ago when the world was a very different place.… I would just say that this is an important piece of legislation that keeps the market fair and keeps the same oversight over Horizon.

“That sounded like something written by Horizon itself,” Senator Singer – himself a sponsor of the bill – said in response to Senator Pou’s remarks.  “Let me share a few things.  First of all, $600m that was acquired by the ratepayers.  Is that $600m going back to the ratepayers?  I have NJ Manufacturers, I get a check in the mail.  Are the people who signed up for Horizon getting a check in the mail? No, it’s going in the general fund.  Are we talking about gained seats?  Let’s see, that’s two for the senate president, two for the speaker, two more for the governor.  Each gets paid $77,000 a year to sit on a board, that’s $29,000 more than a senator or assemblyperson gets paid, so we decided we’re going to extort something from a company to get something.  We’re going to get seats that we can give out at $77,000 a year, increasing board by another 6 members, I don’t know what that does, you don’t identify the members or say you have to be minorities or women, just giveaways. And the $600m, think about that.  I just heard things about telemedicine, healthy children, diabetes, COVID, why isn’t that $600m going to those issues?  I wouldn’t have a problem if you took that money and dedicated it to the poor, the under insured, the minorities of this state, the black, brown, population, the poor white population, and said we’re throwing $600m to help you understand the health system… Instead we’re putting $600m with no restrictions into the general fund – and guess who it’ll probably go to?  Giveaways.  I have no problem with what they want to do as a company.  I have a problem that we are extorting things that are not going for the right reasons.  We should be ashamed of ourselves.”

Senator Pou wished to respond, although Sweeney wanted to move forward, but she did make further remarks.  “I will not tolerate Senator Singer’s comment with respect to any of the references of the information we made with regards to the oversight of this bill.  We all received information from everyone to ensure and to make comments that we don’t have the ability to say things on our own, that is disrespectful, I would not say that to Senator Singer and I will not accept that, either.”

Pou spoke over Singer as the latter was offering his apologies, where she charged that, “It is also clear that Senator Singer has not read or understood the limitations in terms of—”

The bill does contain a provision included to expressly ensure the appointment of minorities to the board.

Sweeney ended the exchange, “Senator, I have to get control of this meeting.   He apologized, he was wrong, he apologized.”

“Everything that Senator Pou said is correct,” Senator Cardinale said, “she allows everyone to speak, almost ad nauseum, and she is extremely transparent.  If that was the end of the story, I would be voting for this bill.  But there are more facts have not been brought forward and need to be understood because they’re very important.  At our committee hearing we elicited information as does the $600m exist, we were told it does, they don’t have to borrow the money, it is from excess reserves. That means this company which was supposed to operate as a total non-profit and provide a last resource for insurance for people who couldn’t get it elsewhere and make it as cheap as possible, well, excess profits–maybe they were working under constraints but it didn’t stop them from making excess profits.”

Cardinale spoke of struggling small businesses and families, charging that, “Maybe the better course is to give that money back to people who paid excessive premiums that allowed this excess revenue to accumulate.”  He also added that most municipalities use Horizon for their workers, “So they too have been paying excessive premiums which could be given back.”  Citing that property taxes pose one of the biggest challenges for New Jersey residents, Cardinale said that the bill was preserving the problem rather than helping alleviate it.  “If you take the $600m for the general fund it may be used for any projects.  That’s a lot of money and there’s a lot of temptation surrounding that, as Senator Singer called it giveaways. One of the bigger giveaways is that we have a political situation next year and this $600m will go into that budget to defray some of the effect of that budget in a year that just happens to be where the governor is running for reelection and we have many budgetary problems.  This is a very a convenient way to supply money to the gubernatorial elections with no reasonable purpose,” a statement which provoked a shout on the call.  “We should give it back to the ratepayers.  There are good things in this bill but that’s outweighed by the mischief surrounding the $600m.”

Senator Oroho said, “We have the Horizon side of the transaction and the state side… I don’t think anyone would disagree that a bill written 30 years ago, that there hasn’t been significant changes in all sorts of things.  We are doing things differently now with technology… Horizon should be able to do the same thing… we could do legislation taking off those handcuffs very responsibly…  I certainly hope the comments we’ve been hearing about reducing taxes can help economic development  in the future, that’s something I know many of my Republican and Democrat colleagues agree, I just hope they will remember that…”  Oroho suggested an idea, “We’d like to put it into a nonprofit health improvement corporation called the Health Care Rate Stabilization and Improvement Organization which would be run by a non-paid board of directors with appointment by the governor, Senate president, and as well as by Horizon itself.”  He listed a number of topics which the organization would address, and asked that the bill be put back for another reading for the purpose of the amendment.

Senator Weinberg moved to table, which succeeded.

“I just want to alleviate everyone’s concerns that there’s some type of backroom deal, this is as transparent as possible,” Senator Sarlo said.  He said that other states had moved similar bills.  “A more competitive, modern, tech friendly Horizon is better for the ratepayers of New Jersey.”

“I think there’s been a lot of conversation on the $600m upfront payment and additional payments as it relates to this bill, I think one thing incumbent on us to remember is that no matter what that bill says, the allocation of those resources will be determined by the budget every year,” Senator Singleton said.  “The budget supersedes all legislation that comes before us.”

Senator Gill spoke at length and passionately, urging fellow Democrats to vote no.  She said that, “The process of this legislation has lacked transparency and failed to provide time for the public to be fully informed and understand all its implications.  This is particularly so since we’re in the middle of a pandemic in an emergency with a spike in COVID infections. This legislation was heard in a senate committee for the first time Monday and we’re voting on it three days later. Under this law the new holding company will be allowed to buy other insurance companies, sell stock to private investors for the profit of the corporate entity rather than the benefit of the policy holders. This legislation also fails to provide meaningful oversight from the Attorney General’s office of the company’s assets to ensure that the company’s charitable assets are protected.”

Gill implied that there was an inherent hypocrisy in the bill, saying that “What is more interesting is that this legislation has suspended the 2017 laws designated to protect policy holders.  in 2017 we refused to allow Governor Christie to grab policyholders’ money and we passed a law.  That 2017 law required that if Horizon’ss capital surplus exceeds a certain threshold a report will be made including a plan to benefit subscribers, specifically to lessen potential rate increases in the future.  This bill has been rushed… because we have to pass it by the December 31 deadline to permit the state to grab this money that belongs to the policy owners.  We can’t allow a Democratic governor to do what we would not permit previous governors to do…”

Gill assailed what she called a rushed process and said that, “In this pandemic, and this issue where we are in a state of emergency, we consider the number one issue people care about, which is health insurance…  Let’s take some time, 3.6 million people who are under assault by COVID, where the governor has declared a public emergency.”  Gill blasted the governor, saying, “He thinks it is so important that he will usurp the power of the legislature, but he will not usurp the power of the people of this state.  I say on this issue, if we didn’t let Chris Christie do it then I’m not going to vote to allow a Democrat to do it because it works against the people who actually put in the money.”

The roll was called:

Senator Dawn Marie Addiego Democrat yes

Senator Christopher Bateman Republican abstain

Senator James Beach Democrat yes

Senator Chris A. Brown Republican no

Senator Anthony M. Bucco Republican no

Senator Gerald Cardinale Republican no

Senator Richard J. Codey Democrat yes

Senator Christopher J. Connors Republican no

Senator Kristin M. Corrado Republican no

Senator Nilsa I. Cruz-Perez Democrat yes

Senator Joseph P. Cryan Democrat yes

Senator Sandra B. Cunningham Democrat yes

Senator Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. Democrat yes

Senator Michael J. Doherty Republican no

Senator Nia H. Gill, Esq. Democrat no

Senator Vin Gopal Democrat yes

Senator Linda R. Greenstein Democrat yes

Senator James W. Holzapfel Republican no

Senator Thomas H. Kean, Jr. Republican no

Senator Joseph A. Lagana Democrat yes

Senator Fred H. Madden, Jr. Democrat yes

Senator Steven V. Oroho Republican no

Senator Declan J. O’Scanlon, Jr. Republican no

Senator Joseph Pennacchio Republican no

Senator Nellie Pou Democrat yes

Senator Ronald L. Rice Democrat yes

Senator M. Teresa Ruiz Democrat yes

Senator Nicholas J. Sacco Democrat yes

Senator Paul A. Sarlo Democrat yes

Senator Nicholas P. Scutari Democrat yes

Senator Robert W. Singer Republican no

Senator Troy Singleton Democrat yes

Senator Bob Smith Democrat yes

Senator Brian P. Stack Democrat yes

Senator Stephen M. Sweeney Democrat yes

Senator Michael L. Testa, Jr. Republican no

Senator Samuel D. Thompson Republican no

Senator Shirley K. Turner Democrat no

Senator Joseph F. Vitale Democrat yes

Senator Loretta Weinberg Democrat yes

S2518 passed.

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