TRENTON — Gov. Chris Christie on Monday announced major changes to his cabinet, revealing that three long-serving state officials — including his treasurer and health commissioner — will be leaving, and that he has picked a long-time state employee to fill another top post.
State Treasurer Andrew Sidamon-Eristoff, state Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd, and state Banking and Insurance Commissioner Ken Kobylowski are all departing within the next few weeks, the governor said.
Christie called them “three talented and dedicated individuals.”
“Acting on some of the most challenging issues facing our state, each has responded with utmost professionalism in working on solutions that have balanced six state budgets and provided a framework for long-term pension reform; ensured that residents have the healthcare access they need through our health care delivery system; and protected consumers by calling for more accountability from insurers,” he said in a statement. “The Garden State is a much better place because of their hard work.”
Christie also announced that he has nominated Elizabeth Connolly to become commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, the largest department in state government. Connolly, a 26-year state employee, has been acting commissioner since February, when former Commissioner Jennifer Velez resigned.
It was not announced why Sidamon-Eristoff, O’Dowd, and Kobylowski are stepping down — though Christie said he will nominate O’Dowd, the health commissioner, to the Board of Directors for Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey. Board members are paid $72,000, according to a Horizon spokesman.
“Each have their own plans,” said Brian Murray, a spokesman for Christie’s office. “Their departures will unfold at different times over the next several weeks.”
The announcement comes as Christie inches closer to announcing whether he is seeking the 2016 Republican nomination for president. He has said he will reveal his decision by the end of the month.
The departures are part of a string of resignations from the governor’s cabinet in recent months. Velez left to become vice president for strategy and planning at Barnabas Health, while former state Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable stepped down in March to take a job at hospitality company Wyndham Worldwide.
Sidamon-Eristoff’s departure comes amid another battle between Christie and Democrats over the direction of the state budget, which must be passed by next Wednesday.
The treasurer took the job at the beginning of Christie’s tenure in 2010 and has overseen New Jersey’s multi-billion dollar budget for six years.
He helped craft the pension reform law that Christie signed in 2011 and is still a source of controversy. Faced with revenue shortfalls, Christie slashed billions in pension payments over the last two years to balance the state budget. Despite an outcry from unions, the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this month that Christie is not required to make the full payment to the pension system required by the law.
But Democratic state lawmakers have proposed raising taxes on the wealthy and businesses, as well as using unexpected tax revenue, to cover the full payment in the upcoming budget — a payment Christie said the state can’t afford despite the law.
Sidamon-Eristoff also drafted Christie’s business tax reduction initiative, coordinated the state Transportation Trust Fund Authority Act and managed the privatization of state television and parts of the state lottery.
“I am deeply grateful to Gov. Christie for giving me the opportunity to serve the people of this great state as part of his administration,” Sidamon-Eristoff said in a statement. “With the help of treasury’s talented and dedicated staff, we have met major challenges successfully while recording important achievements for New Jersey’s taxpayers.”
Robert Romano, the deputy state treasurer, will serve as acting treasurer. He previously spent 20 years with the state Department of Law and Public Safety’s Division of Law.
O’Dowd’s time with New Jersey government predates Christie. She became chief of state of the state health department in 2008 under then-Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat. She became deputy commissioner in 2010 under Christie before assuming the job of commissioner in 2011.
During her tenure, O’Dowd presided over a flurry of hospital mergers and acquisitions in response to the budget cuts associated with the Affordable Care Act. One of her final acts as commissioner may be her decision whether to let Prime Health Care Services, a for-profit chain in California, buy Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark that would likely save the hospital from closing. Prime made the pitch to buy the hospital two years ago, but the state has raised numerous questions about the application.
The state’s medical marijuana program also expanded — albeit slowly — under O’Dowd’s tenure. Three of six dispensaries have opened and fourth is expected to open later in the summer.
Her husband is Kevin O’Dowd, who served as Christie’s chief of staff until last year, when he took a position at Cooper University Health Care.
“It has been an honor to serve the state of New Jersey for the last seven years while leading the extraordinarily talented workforce at the Department of Health,” Mary O’Dowd said in a statement. “I believe our collective efforts have led to empowering individuals and communities to improve their health and quality of life now and in the future.”
Catherine Bennett, the health department’s director of Policy and Strategic Planning, will become acting commissioner. She has been a member of the department since 2010.
Kobylowski joined the Department of Banking and Insurance as chief of staff in 2010, became acting director of banking in 2011, and was named commissioner in 2012.
“It has been an honor and a privilege to lead the department and work for New Jersey residents and businesses,” Kobylowski said in a statement. “I am proud of all that we have accomplished and confident that the department’s work will continue seamlessly under my successor.”
Christie said he is nominating Richard Badolato, a partner at the Roseland law firm Connell Foley, to become the department’s new commissioner. The nominations are subject to state Senate approval.
NJ Advance Media staff writer Susan K. Livio contributed to this report.