No book deal for Christie (ever?), no killing newspaper legal ads (today)
Lawmakers weren’t able to muster the votes Monday needed to pass two pieces of controversial legislation – one granting raises to nearly 700 public officials and letting Gov. Chris Christie sign a book deal, the other allowing governments to stop printing public notices in newspapers.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Hudson, indicated that the book-deal bill is dead. However, he and a spokesman for Christie both said that the legal-ads legislation would be a top priority when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
The bills couldn't get the needed support in the Assembly, where rank-and-file members declined to follow their leaders and Christie. It's unclear whether they would have passed the Senate, which didn't take them up once it became clear they were stuck.
“You pick at a member, and other members had different issues," Prieto said. "Some of them, it was the book deal. Some of them was in reference to raises and the cost of it. So it was an array of things that at this point in time, there was no support for it.”
Prieto said the legal-ads proposal has "a lot of merit" and hopes to bring it back soon, perhaps in a revised format.
“They actually thought the one thing there was perception, which that’s a thing -- that word that I hate, perception, because of a lot of times that shouldn’t be a driving force on anything. It should be on the merits of it," Prieto said. "So we’re going to look at it and all options and bring it back relatively soon.”
“If the Assembly wants more time to consider the legal notices bill, that is acceptable to the governor," said Jeremy Rosen, a spokesman for Christie. "However, this will be a top priority when we return from the holidays.”
Critics of the salaries/book deal bill converged in Trenton handing out backscratchers, pressuring lawmakers not to approve more than $10 million in raises, including for their own staffs, in exchange for revising ethics laws so executive-branch officials can make outside income from books while in office.
The same coalition fought the legal-ads proposal, which would have allowed public agencies to self-publish notices on their websites. Such a change could cost newspapers tens of millions of dollars a year in revenues and would likely prompt smaller weeklies to close.
“Regardless of the dollars that are being talked about and the economic issues and that sort of thing, that transparency is really at the heart of what this is all about in terms of what makes this such a bad piece of legislation,” said George White, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association.
“We’re talking about real jobs,” he said. “You’re talking about a news ecosystem in New Jersey that’s been compromised as the market forces have taken place. Good Lord, if you’re up to 300 layoffs, and they’re going to impact local weekly newspapers but also impact dailies like The Record, like the Star-Ledger, the Asbury Park Press, that really invest in some important investigative journalism.”
Activist groups ripped Democratic legislative leaders for cooperating with Christie on both proposals.
“Certainly when a state is in the fiscal hole that it is, it is more than a matter of debate, it does not make sense to raise the salaries of some of the highest-paid officials in the state, to say nothing of the ethics ramifications of allowing a governor who’s nearly a millionaire to profit off his own escapades,” said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.
“People are angry about this. The public recognizes this for what it is, which is a filthy, backroom, backscratching deal that does not benefit the public,” said Ann Vardeman, program director for New Jersey Citizen Action.
Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, said the speed with which the bills were considered was a concern.
"I don't believe they have any merit, but for those that do, why not take time and have a really deliberative process about them," Wisniewski said.
Wisniewski said that perhaps newspaper-based legal notices should be examined. He supported the change in a 2004 vote though opposed the current version, saying it was being pushed by Christie over a grudge against newspapers.
"It saves $80 million. No, it saves $20 million. How much does each town spend? What's the cost of the IT infrastructure if you were to require towns to have notice? All of that is right now left to kind of speculation," Wisniewski said. "Listening to various members talk about it, it's my guess and your guess, and there are no facts. And that's a real dangerous area to be legislating in. We should have the facts. If this is a critical issue for the state, then let's take our time and do a thorough job."
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