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NJ budget impasse: Holiday visitors, residents unhappy over govt. operations shutdown

Holiday tourists, New Jersey residents woke up surprised by news that many state operations had been shut down. With no budget passed by midnight, Gov. Christie was required by law to shut non-essential services.

Many New Jersey residents woke Saturday morning with errands on their minds and Fourth of July holiday plans ahead — and no clue that Gov. Christie had shut down state operations because of the legislative budget impasse.

That meant closing of nonessential services, including the Motor Vehicle Commission, state parks and beaches – and disappointing scores of holiday visitors and residents. Businesses counting on robust holiday traffic took an economic hit and had little to celebrate.

At Wharton State Forest, New Jersey's largest state park, calls were supposed to go out informing incoming campers of the closure. But plenty of tourists showed up Saturday, saying they didn't know about the shutdown.

"Can we sue somebody?" asked Victoria Perdomo, who traveled from New York City with eight friends and relatives for an annual camping trip. "We had a reservation for two months in advance!"

The group arrived at the 115,000-acre Pinelands forest near Hammonton – towing a rented U-Haul wagon filled with camping equipment – after paying $300 to stay through Wednesday.

"Everybody is very upset," said Perdomo, 30, who was calling around to campsites in Pennsylvania to ask about availability. "We're going to continue to do our trip, but maybe next time we won't do it in New Jersey."

The Florea family arrived Saturday morning from Jenkintown with a reservation to stay for three nights but found the park office closed.

"I want to talk to Governor Christie," said Catalin Florea, who was accompanied by his wife and their daughters, 7 and 5. "This is unacceptable."

Florea's wife, Beth, said they might call some private campsites or places in Pennsylvania, but worried about finding space on a holiday weekend.

"It's really disappointing," she said. "The girls packed two weeks ago."

She said the experience wouldn't deter them from camping again in New Jersey, however.

"I love camping in Jersey," she said. "I'm from Michigan, and the geography is similar. The pine trees, the sand, it's wonderful."

At the Pic-a-Lilli Inn, a Shamong bar on Route 206 down the road from the Wharton state forest campgrounds, manager Bonnie Schneider said business was slow.

"We usually plan for a huge weekend," she said. "It's awkward – we have a lot of people working for not many people."

Typically, the 90-year-old restaurant gets drive-by traffic as well as overflow from nearby lakes and campsites. But as business lulled through the afternoon, Schneider said she may have to start cutting some servers loose from their shifts early.

"People aren't headed in this direction today," she said. "They're finding something else to do."

At Island Beach State Park in Ocean County, police turned away cars, bicyclists and joggers attempting to enter the park on Saturday.

Ronah Harris, 39, was among those surprised to find it closed. She had traveled to Island Beach from Princeton for the holiday.

"I'm confused about it," said Harris  "For Fourth of July weekend? It's unfortunate. It's ironic." She said she would look for a different beach to visit.

Jane O'Leary, 57, another holiday weekend visitor, rode her bike up to the park entrance and saw police. O'Leary, who has a summer house in Ocean County, said she thought she and her family would be able to work around the park's closure.

"We're not the ones who have planned our whole vacation around this, but we like to ride (our bikes) in," she said.

Minutes earlier, police stopped Andrew Karemer, 52, as he attempted to jog into the park. He said he knew of the park's closure but assumed police would still let people run through it.

The shutdown, he said, would "affect everyone's plans."

"It's a bad situation," said Karemer. "I hope they're working in Trenton, trying to fix this. They get paid to fix problems, not create them."

Arthur Palacio and three of his friends drove in from Morris County, about two hours' north, and were thrilled to score a walk-up campsite in Wharton State Forest Friday night. They set up camp about a mile and a half in, planning to spend the weekend.

But they were told Saturday morning to pack up and leave, and they trooped back to the parking lot around noon.

"It sucks," Palacio said, shaking his head. "We're expected to go to PA now? That's a long drive."

They lost no money, but by the time they packed the car back up, their motivation was low to start over at a new campsite.

"We're closing it up after this," Palacio said. "That's it for us."

In Cherry Hill, a steady stream of motorists pulled up to the MVC with hopes of getting their cars inspected, only to find a chain and a "station closed" sign blocking the parking lot.

The shutdown was news to them all.

"Saturday is the only day I have to do things like this," said 28-year-old Ashley Hoffer, of Riverside, whose last day to get her car inspected was Friday. "Will it be back open on Monday?"

"Is this Christie's fault?" asked Brian Giovanetti, of Riverside. "He's the governor – ultimately it falls to him. Has it ever happened before?"

Christie, meanwhile, scheduled an 11:30 a.m. press conference with Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, blaming the shutdown on Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson), who refused to consider a bill Christie demanded in exchange for signing the 34.7 billion budget for 2018.

Giovanetti, 59, worried what would happen if he were pulled over with expired inspection papers.

"If I can't get it inspected, I can't get it inspected," he said.

Frank Liang, of Voorhees, pulled up in a new car. He had a week to get it inspected.

"Today's the last day," he said, burying his head in his hands.

Santosh Kotgire, 47, said he had checked the Cherry Hill MVC's online queue Saturday morning and was surprised to see nobody was reported in line.

"I thought maybe it was a good time to come," he said. "I also thought, something is fishy."

Essential services, such as state police, remain open.

Christie, a Republican, and the Democratic-controlled Legislature are expected to return to work Saturday morning for another round of budget arguments. At issue in the impasse is legislation that would restructure Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New jersey, the state's largest health insurer.

The governor said he would sign the overall budget measure for 2018 if lawmakers passed a bill that would require Horizon to develop a plan to allocate excess surplus to benefit policyholders and improve "the overall health status of all New Jersey residents."

The Horizon legislation was passed on Thursday but Prieto refused to consider the bill, calling it a "Christie tax" on Horizon's 3.8 million policyholders.