Lawmakers advance plan for raises, paving way for Christie book deal
TRENTON — Committees in the state Senate and Assembly endorsed a plan Thursday that would allow Gov. Chris Christie to profit from a book deal while in office, as well as give raises to close to 700 public officials.
Lawmakers also advanced separate legislation that’s moving in tandem with the book-deal bill that would let government agencies publish legal notices on their own websites, rather than in newspapers — a measure that the publishing industry has described as retaliation against an adversarial press.
Both bills are expected to be voted on by the full Senate and Assembly on Monday.
The book-deal provision has gotten a lot of attention, though it wouldn’t directly expend any taxpayer dollars. The state’s ethics law currently prohibits the governor and other executive-branch officials from having outside sources of income. An exception would be created for books and published works.
Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Essex, called it a “fundamental First Amendment” issue. He said New York and Wisconsin governors have written books, as have presidents and U.S. senators.
“Anybody in the executive department should have that same right as our U.S. senators, as our presidents, as anybody else, as an American. Want to write a book? Be compensated. Disclose it and have transparency,” O’Toole said.
“When it comes to the governor writing a book, why not? I don’t see what the fuss is being made about the governor writing a book, having that right to do so. Why not?” said Sen. Brian Stack, D-Hudson.
Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said he hears “anger, frustration, animosity” toward Christie from constituents but that blocking him from writing a book isn’t a good reason to spike needed pay raises for judges, Cabinet officers and other government officials.
“I’m not a big fan of putting it in this piece of legislation. But I’m being practical, OK?” Sarlo said. “There’s a lot of good in this bill. And if we need to include that as part of this bill, to make sure it gets the bipartisan support and the governor’s signature, so be it.”
The raises for around 470 judges would also hike the pay for almost 170 other officials – county clerks, sheriffs and surrogates and administrative law and workers’ compensation judges – whose salaries are tied to what a Superior Court judge is paid.
The bill also raises salaries for county prosecutors, Cabinet officers, executive directors of the four legislative caucuses and the state Division of Investment director.
It also provides each of the 120 lawmakers an additional $30,000 a year to pay aides.
Including the cost for benefits, the raises would cost around $10 million in 2017. That would grow by around $5 million more in 2018, then grow along with inflation from there.
Sen. Linda Greenstein, D-Middlesex, said the bill isn’t “absolutely needed at this time.” She said staff salaries, judges’ salaries and the ethics law that covers whether a governor can be paid to write a book should be looked at in the future.
“But putting them all together into this bill at this time I just think is the wrong thing from the public point of view. I feel like what we’re doing is slapping the public by doing something like this,” said Greenstein.
O’Toole said judges’ take-home pay is now $3,000 less a year than it was a decade ago because they contribute more toward their pensions and health benefits. That makes it difficult to recruit and retain judges who could earn much more in private practice, he said.
The decline in take-home pay is true for tens of thousands of public employees, said Seth Hahn, legislative and political director for the Communications Workers of America.
“Every contract we have negotiated in almost every location over the past decade has been concessionary,” Hahn said. “We’ve taken furloughs, pay cuts, layoffs. We’ve taken higher payments to health care and pension to get fewer benefits. And so we greatly understand what it’s like to go a decade or more and have your actual take-home pay decreased.”
“We certainly support the idea of legislative staff getting paid more. I think they’re absolutely worth it,” Hahn said. “But we have 55,000 people who are in the same boat who aren’t going to understand why certain people are going to get raises while they continue to get less and less and less. And frankly, to tie it to personally enriching one public official whose family made $930,000 last year is, to our members, it’s beyond the pale and they can’t understand it.”
Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University political scientist, told lawmakers the maneuver could further erode trust in government.
“The governor right now has an 18 percent job approval rating, and that’s largely because the people of New Jersey feel that they have been used by the this governor,” Murray said.
“I understand that these raises are overdue, but I don’t think the tradeoff in public trust, at a time when that public trust is at its most fragile point as it has been since the Civil War or the Depression, that this is the way to go about it,” Murray said.
Murray, who said he was testifying as a private citizen, not a representative of Monmouth, said the legislation would further cement residents’ feeling that Christie uses his office for his personal ambition. He said a 2017 book tour could push Christie’s approvals under 10 percent – but that Democrats should be wary of that, even if they think that would be good for them.
“We have seen this happen in Washington, where attempts to undermine the legitimacy and credibility of the president have now undermined the legitimacy and the credibility of the presidency itself,” he said.
“It is going to seriously undermine public trust, not just in Gov. Christie himself but in the governorship of New Jersey but also the Legislature of New Jersey as well and leave people to further question whether you are actually acting on their behalf,” Murray said. “And as we have seen, when people feel that government is not acting on their behalf, there are unpredicted consequences.”
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