New Jersey governor Chris Christie has signed his final budget after a three-day state government shutdown that included a viral photo of him lounging on a state beach that was closed to the public because of the budget impasse. The lame-duck Republican governor signed the $34.7bn budget early on Tuesday.
However, he sounded an unapologetic tone over the aerial photos snapped by NJ.com that showed him at the state governor’s residence at Island Beach State Park. The pictures sparked a global reaction: countless memes featuring a Photoshopped cutout of Mr Christie in the beach chair, headlines on international news sites and a full-scale media blitz from his spokesman.
Mr Christie says it was not a scandal because he was where he said he would be: relaxing with his family.
“If they had flown that plane over that beach and I was sitting next to a 25-year-old blonde in that beach chair next to me, that’s a story,” he said. “I wasn’t sitting next to a 25-year-old blonde. I was sitting next to my wife of 31 years.” The photos are part of a bruising finale for the term-limited governor, who had been a regular on late-night TV and a Republican superstar after Superstorm Sandy hammered his state in 2012.
Mr Christie’s job approval in New Jersey has sunk to 15%, tumbling after the convictions of three former aides in a scheme to deliberately cause traffic jams at the George Washington Bridge, his failed presidential run and his backing of President Donald Trump. He has become such a political liability that his top deputy, lieutenant governor Kim Guadagno, running to succeed him, hammered him over the beach photos: “Beyond words,” she said.
Mr Christie acknowledged his lame-duck status on Tuesday after the budget signing but predicted that if Ms Guadagno wins he still might have some influence with lawmakers – but less if Democrat Phil Murphy wins.
Mr Christie denied the beach photos played a role in how he negotiated with lawmakers and said it was “the pressure of a shutdown” that contributed to the budget resolution.
The deal Mr Christie struck late on Monday with Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney and Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto calls for a budget that includes more than $300m in Democratic spending priorities and is part of an agreement to overhaul the state’s largest health insurer, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield.
The Horizon legislation calls for annual audits of the non-profit’s reserve level, sets a range for reserves and requires excess to be spent on policyholders. The budget stalemate centred on Mr Christie’s desire for legislation to overhaul Horizon but the deal includes none of the initial use of Horizon’s surplus for opioid treatment that he set out to get in February.
Without a budget, state parks were shut down along with other non-essential state services, including state courts and the motor vehicle offices where people go to get driver’s licences.
Mr Christie said he requested to give state workers a paid holiday on Tuesday and would discuss back pay with lawmakers.