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Local Journalism in New Jersey Could Be in for $100 Million Windfall

Under a Democratic plan, a chunk of the $332 million proceeds from FCC spectrum auction could go to media, but Christie may want it all for the budget’s general fund

weinberg
Credit: Martin Griff
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)

New Jersey is getting ready to receive a one-time infusion of $332 million in revenue thanks to a nationwide auction of broadcast airwaves that was held earlier this year. With a new state fiscal year about to begin in a matter of weeks, two Democratic legislative leaders are now pushing to earmark at least some of that money to bolster local journalism in New Jersey.

Legislation that’s expected to be introduced today by Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Assembly Majority Leader Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) calls for a $100 million portion of the proceeds from a recent Federal Communications Commission broadcast-spectrum auction to be used to create a nonprofit Civic Information Consortium in New Jersey.

The consortium would be led by four state universities, with grants provided over a five-year period to media organizations, community groups, and others. The goal would be to help counteract a decline in the state’s newspaper industry that has occurred in recent years, something that’s helped to erode coverage of local news across the state.

“This legislation will provide support for journalism and for the kind of programs that will help to keep the public informed and provide government accountability and transparency that our residents deserve,” said Weinberg.

Other plans for the proceeds

But the two majority leaders aren’t the only lawmakers recommending a specific way to spend the FCC auction proceeds. Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) is planning to introduce a budget resolution for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins July 1, that would allocate the full haul from the auction to fund both state opioid-addiction programs and New Jersey’s public television network, NJTV.

Both of the ideas floated by the lawmakers in recent days conflict with Gov. Chris Christie’s current plan for the incoming FCC revenue, which according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, calls for the funds from the auction to simply be transferred using budget language into the state budget’s fiscal year 2018 general fund. Under Christie’s plan, the auction revenue would then be available for any number of purposes for a state that is deep in debt, has a huge unfunded public-employee pension liability, and has regularly missed its budget targets in recent years as Christie has increased spending but also cut taxes.

But if lawmakers ultimately get their way as budget negotiations unfold in the coming weeks and some or all of the FCC revenue gets earmarked for a specific purpose, they would also have to find a way to fill a hole in Christie’s fiscal 2018 spending plan since the state constitution requires a balanced budget.

A spokesman for the state Department of Treasury declined comment on the two proposals on Friday, citing the agency’s general policy of not weighing in on pending legislation.

Covering New Jersey

New Jersey for decades has owned public TV stations in Camden, Montclair, New Brunswick, and Trenton, the result of lawmakers long ago growing frustrated with paltry coverage of New Jersey issues by commercial TV stations in New York and Pennsylvania. The state-owned stations provide public programming by NJTV under a five-year deal with the nonprofit Public Media NJ, an affiliate of WNET, New York City’s flagship public station.

But after the federal government announced in 2015 that it would be conducting an auction to free up more broadcast spectrum for wireless providers to meet a growing consumer demand for streaming video and other content, the New Jersey Public Broadcasting Authority decided to participate in the auction, since many viewers now get their NJTV shows via cable or online.

After a lengthy and complicated auction process, the official results were announced by the federal government in April, with the stations in Montclair and Trenton among the list of those agreeing to go off the air as a result of the FCC’s redistribution of broadcast spectrum. The Montclair station’s airwaves netted $194 million, while the Trenton station’s bandwidth brought in $138 million.

The stations in Camden and New Brunswick were not affected by the auction and will share broadcast spectrum with the two stations that were, state officials said. And though the auction process has been completed, New Jersey has yet to receive any proceeds, according to the Treasury, and likely won’t until after the 2018 fiscal year begins next month.

Seed money

Under the bill expected to be introduced today by the Democratic majority leaders, once the revenue does arrive it would be set aside as seed money for a new nonprofit consortium that would be set up to help support efforts to support local journalism and improve civic engagement. The consortium would be led by Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University, and Rutgers University, and the funding would be distributed to the consortium in $20 million tranches over a five-year period.

“The Garden State is overshadowed by the New York and Philadelphia media markets, with no media market of its own,” Greenwald said.

“This legislation will create an influx of local news for the underserved communities throughout New Jersey,” he said. "Now, more than ever, we need to ensure that quality local journalism is available to all Garden State residents.”

The majority leaders’ proposal was drafted in the wake of an aggressive grassroots effort led by Free Press, a nonprofit organization aimed at improving press freedom and civic engagement through public-interest journalism. The support from the two legislative leaders gives the proposal a strong shot of making it to Christie’s desk before the new budget is enacted for fiscal 2018.

‘Once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’

“This legislation is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address the local news crisis and make New Jersey a model for the rest of the nation,” said Mike Rispoli, the director of the Free Press News Voices: New Jersey project.

“People rely on locally produced news and information to engage with their neighbors, learn about volunteer opportunities, make decisions about voting, run for public office, get information about small businesses, and support their children in local schools,” Rispoli said.

But competing with that proposal is the one that has been put forward by Kyrillos, a longtime senator who is not running for election this year. Under his plan, a $33 million piece of the auction proceeds would be dedicated through fiscal 2018 budget resolution toward supporting NJTV’s operations. That part of his proposal won immediate praise from NJTV, which has previously called for funds from the FCC auction to be reinvested in the state’s public-television network. NJTV is a content partner of NJ Spotlight.

“NJTV has openly requested that the State dedicate at least some portion of FCC Spectrum Auction funds to New Jersey’s public television network to assure the network's long-term sustainability and growth as an independent source for local news, public affairs, arts and other programming, as well as community engagement activities,” NJTV said in a statement.
“We appreciate any proposal from the State Legislature that moves this ask forward, and appreciate the efforts of many Senators from both sides that have agreed to help shepherd it through the process,” NJTV said.

The opioid epidemic

The remaining nearly $300 million from the auction, according to Kyrillos, could go toward funding opioid-addiction services, something that Christie has been repeatedly emphasizing this year as the state struggles with an addiction epidemic. That element of the proposal would also take the heat off Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield, a nonprofit insurance company whose reserves Christie has eyed as a source of funding to help bolster the state’s overburdened anti-addiction programs. While lawmakers have generally been supportive of Christie for bringing more attention to the addiction epidemic, many from both parties have criticized the second-term Republican’s threat of using legislation to generate additional funding for addiction services from a private business.

“Based on the many concerns that have been raised, it is unlikely that the Legislature will advance the Horizon proposal,” Kyrillos said.

“If $300 million is the amount the governor believes is needed for drug treatment in New Jersey, this plan accomplishes that goal,” Kyrillos said. “Most importantly, it does so without putting the healthcare of millions of New Jerseyans who are covered by Horizon at risk.”

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