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Does Letting Legal Notices Be Published Solely Online Punish the Press Financially?

Critics argue Christie wants payback for Bridgegate coverage; administration says move could save local governments, businesses $80 million — though estimate remains unverified

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Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen

Barring a last-minute break between Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders, state lawmakers are on the verge of making New Jersey the first state in the nation to roll back a longstanding transparency law that requires local governments, businesses, and others to publish official legal notices in newspapers.

A bipartisan measure that is up for final votes in both the Assembly and Senate this afternoon would no longer make it a legal requirement to publish notices for things like municipal ordinances and public-project bid specifications due to the growing popularity of broadband Internet.

The bill’s supporters say it will save local governments that already operate their own websites from having to cover millions in print-advertising costs.

But there’s been little data put forward to back up those claims, and many are now questioning whether disrupting the status quo could actually end up driving up costs because it’s unclear if local governments have the type of Internet infrastructure and trained staff for their web sites needed to insulate against sophisticated and aggressive computer hackers such as those who infiltrated the Democratic National Committee’s email system in the run-up to this year’s presidential election. The alternative to publishing notices in newspapers is to have these notices printed on individual government websites.

Legislative opponents of the proposed policy change openly accuse the governor of having an ulterior motive for getting the bill passed — saying his real motivation is getting financial revenge on newspapers that Christie, a Republican, blames for their coverage of Bridgegate. Christie’s office has for years had a general policy of not commenting on pending legislation, but in this case, the governor’s representatives have actively lobbied for the bill’s passage. Christie himself has taken to social media to attack those questioning the measure on its merits, and he also published an opinion piece online over the weekend to further press the case for the change.

Alarms about backroom political dealing have also been sounded since the bill has been fast-tracked alongside another bill favored by Democratic legislative leaders. That measure would increase the salaries of political appointees across the state, including judges, legislative aides, executive-branch cabinet members, and others. The same bill would also relax executive-branch ethics rules and give Christie the ability to sign a lucrative book-publishing deal before he leaves office in early 2018.

That a deal with Christie wasn’t struck by legislative leaders to advance more core Democratic principles, like increasing the minimum wage, has upset many Democrats across the state, and concerns have also been raised about the potential impact that the loss of revenue from legal ads could have on newspapers, especially weeklies that are in danger of closing.

The Christie administration has also not been able to back up claims that the legal-notice bill would save $80 million, and a thorough, independent analysis of the issue has not been done. A prior review of the issue by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services suggested the change could actually lead to increased government costs. That’s led some newspapers to publish front-page editorials to urge the public that they should contact their legislators and urge them to oppose the legislation to ensure a robust and independent press is maintained in New Jersey.

Legislation seeking to allow legal notices to be published online instead of in newspapers has been introduced several times over the last decade without becoming law, but the latest version was put forward for the first time just one week ago. The bipartisan bill wouldn’t force local governments to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers, but it would give them the option of putting the material on their own websites instead of publishing it in a newspaper. Any savings would also have to be used to reduce property taxes, the bill says.

Christie’s office has estimated the policy change could save businesses and individuals, including parties involved in mortgage foreclosures, up to $80 million annually. But his office has not released a detailed study demonstrating exactly how those savings would be achieved, and those estimates have since been widely questioned.

Meanwhile, newspaper officials who rushed to attend committee hearings called with only a few days of notice in Trenton last week provided their own estimates, saying local governments spend on average about $7,100 a year to publish legal notices.

“You’re not going to be lowering taxes very much,” said Richard Vezza, publisher of the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper by circulation.

Vezza also questioned estimates released by Christie’s office that suggested broadband-Internet access is nearly ubiquitous at this point in New Jersey.

According to federal census data, nearly 80 percent of New Jersey’s residents have both internet access and a device like a computer or smartphone that allows them to go online. But the data also revealed that lower-income communities are far less connected. Of the roughly 800,000 New Jersey households with incomes of $35,000 or less, only 54 percent had broadband Internet access, and 45 percent had no connection at all.

In all, nearly 2 million New Jersey residents don’t use the Internet, whether they have access to it or not, Vezza said during a 90-minute hearing held by the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism, and Historic Preservation Committee.

“We’re talking about 22 percent of the people (who) are going to be cut out of public notices,” he said. “I don’t think that’s good for transparency.”

Vezza and other newspaper officials who testified also said the policy change could cause layoffs in their industry, with losses reaching up to 300 jobs. There are also fears that community newspapers that are already struggling to stay afloat could end up going out of business altogether.

The last time lawmakers looked seriously at adopting a similar policy change, the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services compiled a fiscal note, but it could not identify any specific savings estimates for state and local government. The 2012 analysis pointed out that governments could also have to spend more money if they choose to post the legal notices on their own websites instead of in newspapers.

“To the extent that the State and local governments have to hire additional personnel to handle intake and processing of local notice publication requests or increase their information technology capacity in order to provide for the establishment of a public notice website, these entities may incur additional costs,” the analysis said.

A statement prepared by OLS for the version of the bill that’s up for consideration today also said there would be an “indeterminate fiscal impact.”

“Government agencies that exercise this option may experience a reduction in expenditures, if their volume of legal notices is significant enough that the savings from discontinuing publication in newspapers outweigh the costs of creating and maintaining a notice website as required by the bill,” the OLS statement said.

Still, the proposal is being backed by the New Jersey League of Municipalities, the New Jersey Association of Counties, and the New Jersey School Boards Association. Lawmakers who voted for the proposal in committee last week also said that as the Internet rises in popularity it only gives local governments the option of using their websites and wouldn’t force them to do so. They also raised questions about whether it’s a good thing for the newspaper industry to be so closely tied financially to government via the paid legal notices.

“If in fact, a free press is dependent upon government economically, haven’t we already undermined the very system that we’re looking to protect? The press must be separate and distinct,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) before a vote on the bill was taken in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

The current legislative agenda calls for the legal-notice bill to come up for final approval in the Assembly during a voting session scheduled for 1 p.m. The Senate is scheduled to consider the same bill during a voting session at 2 p.m. From there, it would go immediately to Christie’s desk for consideration.

Also on the voting agenda in both houses this afternoon is the bill that would increase political-appointee salaries and allow Christie to profit from a book deal before he leaves office. The salary increase bill, according to an OLS estimate, will cost taxpayers an estimated $10 million. Its passage would also come a little more than a month after lawmakers voted to increase the state gas tax by 23 cents to generate an estimated $1 billion in additional revenue for transportation projects, something many lawmakers cited as a reason to vote against the bill.

“Giving large pay increases to the politically connected at a time when hardworking residents are coping with a billion-dollar gas tax increase is unconscionable,” said Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth).

“How can this legislature justify giving huge raises to public employees who are already making six-figure salaries while so many families struggle to make ends meet? Public service is service and salaries will generally not be on par with the private sector,” she said.

Others lawmakers have also questioned the why legislative leaders are advancing the two measures with such urgency.

“We have serious and significant issues facing our state,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth). “We ought not be frittering our time and energies with bills such as these, especially since it does not address any issue of immediate importance to the average working New Jerseyan.”

Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute, also issued a warning to lawmakers last week while testifying against the bill proposing to increase political-appointee salaries and to relax executive-branch ethics rules in way that will allow Christie to publish a book.

Given Christie’s abysmal approval ratings and a general lack of public trust in government, Murray said such votes risk a further weakening of the public’s trust.

“My question is, is this tradeoff worth it?,” said Murray, who stressed he was testifying as an individual and not as a representative of Monmouth University or its polling division.

“I understand that these raises are overdue, but I don’t think the tradeoff in public trust at a time when that 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.

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