Governor Takes Another Stab at Ending Publication of Legal Notices in Newspapers

John Reitmeyer | January 25, 2017 | Politics
Proposal is widely viewed as punishment for newspapers that have aggressively covered the Bridgegate scandal and other Christie controversies

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto is a primary sponsor of the legislation that Gov. Chris Christie wants to push through.
A month after Democratic legislative leaders shelved — amid widespread criticism — planned votes on a controversial bill seeking to reverse a longstanding government-transparency law, Gov. Chris Christie is urging them to revisit the issue.

Whether lawmakers are willing to do so in a year that will see all 120 legislative seats on the ballot this November remains to be seen.

Christie wrote earlier this week to the Democratic and Republican leaders of both the Assembly and Senate, renewing his support for legislation that proposes rolling back a New Jersey transparency law that requires governments to buy legal notices in newspapers to advertise things like annual budgets and the dates of public meetings.

The second-term Republican has pitched the policy change as a government cost-saver, and has estimated “tens of millions of dollars every year” in potential savings for governments if they shift the advertisements onto their own websites.

But nonpartisan legislative analysts have been unable to confirm Christie’s estimates, and they’ve also suggested the policy change could have the opposite effect for some local governments if they don’t already have the proper staffing or online-technology capabilities to take on the new responsibility of posting the legal notices online. Others suggested the policy change would make it harder for the public to track government activities, especially those who lack access to the Internet.

Christie’s advocacy for the bill also generated a backlash last month as it’s been widely viewed as an act of revenge that would financially punish the publishers of newspapers that have aggressively covered the Bridgegate scandal and other issues during the governor’s tumultuous seven-year tenure. In fact, Christie sent the letter to the legislative leaders on the same day that Gannett, publisher of The Record, the state’s second-largest newspaper, announced a new round of layoffs impacting 141 positions across the company.

The legal-notices bill was not among the many measures put up for votes when the Assembly and Senate met in the State House on Monday, and spokesmen for both Assembly Speaker Vince Prieto (D-Hudson) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) declined to comment on Christie’s new pitch for the legislation yesterday. Prieto is a primary sponsor of the legislation and had previously said the issue could be brought up again.

The bill seeking to allow government-legal notices to be published online — including on local-government websites — instead of in newspapers was introduced in mid-December, and Sweeney and Prieto allowed it to be fast-tracked to the floor of their respective houses a week later.

The measure moved along with another bill backed by Christie that would have changed state ethics rules to allow the governor to profit from a book-publishing deal before he leaves office in early 2018. But both bills were pulled back by the legislative leaders after a backlash that was fueled by newspaper editorials and social-media posts.

The legal-notices bill would require local governments to use any savings they could realize from the policy change to lower property taxes, but a number of lawmakers complained that they weren’t sure they could trust the Christie administration’s assertion that the bill could reduce government spending by as much as $80 million, a figure repeated by the governor in this week’s letter. 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.

An official fiscal estimate prepared by the Office of Legislative Services said the legal-notices bill would have an “indeterminate fiscal impact” on both state and local governments in New Jersey. While some governments could save money by not having to pay newspaper publishing fees, they could also incur new costs for staff and technology, the OLS estimate said.

The New Jersey Press Association, according to OLS, has said local-government spending on legal notices totaled $20 million in 2010, with $12 million of that reimbursed by private parties. OLS also put into context Christie’s assertion that up to $80 million in annual savings could be realized, saying local governments alone in New Jersey collected nearly $28 billion in property taxes in 2015.

“If the entire $80 million cited by the Governor’s Office is attributable to local government costs, and none of these costs are recovered from private persons, they would account for 0.289 percent of the total property tax levy,” the OLS estimate said.

Still, in his letter to legislative leaders this week, Christie said his office is gathering more data on the amount of revenue that newspaper publishers collect from legal notices. He said the $80 million estimate that his office came up with is based on a 30-consecutive day tally of legal notices “for each daily newspaper.”

“The savings achieved by government and our citizens by permitting legal notices to be posted on the internet will be very substantial,” Christie wrote in the letter.

He also took a swipe at Gannett in the wake of Monday’s layoff announcement. Newspaper publishers had previously claimed that enacting the legal-notices bill could result in up to 300 job losses, and also risk the closure of some small weekly newspapers altogether. Christie said the Gannett layoffs “were not caused by any governmental action, but done by an out-of-state owner to increase their (sic) corporate profits.”

Christie also repeated a claim that the newspaper publishers should be more forthcoming and provide updated estimates of how much revenue they collect from legal notices. His letter included figures already collected by his office for legal notices published last year by the Star-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, and he said a similar analysis was being done for newspapers in New Jersey that are owned by Gannett.

The supporting documentation behind Christie’s estimates was too large to send to NJ Spotlight via email yesterday and would be provided to a reporter in a different format, his public-records office said. The research has already been sent to the legislative leaders, his office said.