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Leading Democratic Lawmakers Derail Fast-Track Bills Favored by Christie

The governor’s not going to get his book deal, and government websites won’t cut into the revenue newspapers earn from publishing official legal notices

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Gov. Chris Christie was handed one major defeat and at least a partial setback yesterday when Democratic legislative leaders, on the final day of the 2016 legislative calendar, balked at relaxing ethics rules so the governor could profit from a book-publishing deal. They also put on hold a bill seeking to reverse a transparency law that was expected to hurt the bottom line of New Jersey newspapers.

The book-deal bill and proposed salary hikes for judges, executive-branch employees, and legislative aides that were incorporated into it, and the measure seeking to roll back a requirement that local governments, businesses, and others publish legal notices in newspapers, were both top priorities for Christie. The second-term Republican has gone, in just a few years, from being a potential presidential candidate to one of the most unpopular governors in New Jersey history.

The two measures had been put on a fast track by legislative leaders earlier this month, but rank-and-file lawmakers blocked their advancement yesterday, signaling a possible change in a State House power paradigm that has been dominated primarily by the governor’s agenda.

But while the bill proposing the salary hikes favored by Democrats and opening the door to Christie’s profiting off a book deal appeared to be completely dead yesterday, the legal-notice legislation — which has been dubbed Christie’s revenge bill because it is projected to financially hurt newspapers that he’s publicly clashed with — is expected to be reworked and possibly reintroduced sometime next year. Still, even that bill’s future is uncertain since sources said Senate President Sweeney (D-Gloucester) had been trying to work out a compromise in recent days that would have kept in place the requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers.

With no more voting sessions scheduled until next month, a spokesman for Christie released a statement yesterday that said the legal-notice bill will remain a “top priority” once the holiday season is over. The spokesman did not comment on lawmakers’ killing of the bill to allow him to profit from a book deal while he’s still in office, something he’s sought approval for several times over the past few years.

Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) told reporters he considers the legal-notice bill to still be a priority, citing potential cost-savings for local governments that could post the notices on their own websites without having to pay newspapers to handle the advertising duties. A spokesman for Sweeney declined comment on the day’s developments.

The legislation seeking to allow legal notices to be published online — most likely on local-government websites — instead of in newspapers was put forward for the first time about a week ago, and it was given only one committee hearing in both the Assembly and Senate last week before being scheduled for final votes in both houses yesterday afternoon. Had the legislation passed, Christie was expected to sign it, possibly immediately.

Though similar bills have been introduced several times over the last decade, this time Christie personally got involved in making the case for the transparency policy change, adding to concerns among lawmakers that the motivation for the bill was more about hurting the newspaper industry than saving local governments money.

But given the rushed approached this time around, there was no time for a thorough cost analysis to be conducted by nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, and many lawmakers complained that they weren’t sure they could trust the Christie administration’s assertion that the bill would reduce government spending. An opinion piece written by Marc Pfieffer, a longtime state official who is an expert on local government issues, also said the bill could end up adding costs, while at the same time providing a poor replacement for a legal-notice process that is generally working well for the public.

Newspaper officials who testified before lawmakers last week also projected that there could be economic consequences to no longer requiring the publishing of the paid legal notices in print. It could lead to the loss of up to 300 jobs and also risk the closure of some local weekly newspapers altogether, they said.

Assemblyman John Wisniewski (D-Middlesex) cited concerns about a proper cost-analysis being done as one of the reasons why he would have voted against the legal-notice bill had it been posted for a vote yesterday. He said a political deal cut earlier this year that traded a gas-tax hike for a series of major tax cuts had the same flaw.

“We legislate and then we ask questions after the fact,” said Wisniewski, who is running for governor next year. Another Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy of Middletown, also issued a statement praising the decision to hold the bill.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said she took issue with the estimates floated by the governor’s office that ran as high as $80 million, but without any supporting documentation. She also disagreed with Christie’s position that the bill should be a “top priority” in 2017.

“If the governor thinks this is the top priority for the new year, rather than safety issues at NJ Transit, pay equity, pension obligations, a $15 minimum wage, a new Port Authority bus terminal, the Gateway Tunnel, preventing gun violence by domestic-violence abusers, New Jersey spending the least amount on smoking-cessation programs — just to name a few — and the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, which if we could hold down would do more to reduce legal ads costs than anything else we could do, he’s more out of touch than we thought,” Weinberg said.

But Prieto, speaking to reporters after the bill was held back, said he thinks local governments will save money. Still, when pressed for more details, he challenged the newspaper reporters interviewing him to ask their own bosses how much money the change could save if it were to be enacted.

“A proper cost analysis? You have that at your fingertips, so I don’t need you to ask me that,” Prieto said. “Every newspaper knows the amount that they collect, so that’s as much as I can tell you.”

As for the decision to hold back the bill that proposed increasing the political-appointee salaries and opening the door to Christie’s book deal, Prieto said there was simply insufficient support among Democrats for the deal that was struck with Christie to pair the two issues in the same bill.

“Members had different issues. Some of them (said) it was the book deal, some of them (said) it was in reference to the raises and the cost of it,” Prieto said. “So it was an array of things in the caucus and at this point in time there was no support.”

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