The launch of an innovative, state-funded media consortium whose goal it is to improve local news coverage in New Jersey is stalled for the second straight year due to budgeting hiccups in Trenton.
Created by law last year, the goal of the nonprofit New Jersey Civic Information Consortium is to help fill the void created by newspaper cutbacks and other media struggles that have left many communities in New Jersey with little to no local journalism.
But the effort — which has been hailed as a first-of-its-kind nationally — has yet to get off the ground because the organizers haven’t received any of the seed money promised by the state. Those dollars would help fund grants for groups working to bolster local news coverage in communities across the state hit hard by the media’s retrenchment.
In 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers appropriated funding to launch the initiative, but by the time the spending was approved, the money had already been used for other purposes. This year, lawmakers made a new appropriation in the budget, which Murphy signed into law on June 30, but the governor has impounded that money and dozens of other spending items over concerns about revenues and the size of the state’s budget reserves.
Amid the frustrating delays, advocates for the media initiative say they remain grateful to see consistent efforts made to fund it. But they are also anxious to get started, which can only happen when Murphy formally releases the impounded appropriation.
“As the Murphy administration determines its funding priorities as it collects additional revenue, the Civic Information Consortium needs to be at the top of the list,” said Mike Rispoli, director of the Free Press Action Fund’s News Voices project, which led a grassroots lobbying effort for the consortium.
New Jersey colleges to lend support
Under the 2018 legislation, several New Jersey-based colleges and universities would help administer grants for the program: The College of New Jersey, Montclair State University, New Jersey Institute of Technology, Rowan University and Rutgers University.
The consortium is to be run by a 13-member board, and the legislation stressed that those receiving grants must operate “independently from the influence of the State, a member university, and any other grantor or contributor of funds or outside source.”
Free Press and other supporters of public funding for local-media projects say the consortium would build on the state’s efforts decades ago when it bought public-broadcasting licenses and created a public television station in response to New York and Philadelphia’s lax coverage of New Jersey issues on their commercial stations. In fact, the original legislation for the consortium called for the seed money to come out of the $332 million the state received in 2017 from a nationwide auction of broadcast airwaves.
But nearly all the money received from the auction was used by former Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to fill budget holes. That left only $10 million for the state’s Trust Fund for the Support of Public Broadcasting, which had been set aside for other purposes by the time Murphy and lawmakers approved a $5 million appropriation for the consortium last year.
Lawmakers sought to remedy the funding issue this year by inserting $1 million in seed money for the consortium into the fiscal year 2020 budget bill. The new appropriation survived Murphy’s line-item veto pen, but it’s now one of 64 different spending items that have been placed in “reserve” by the governor amid concerns about the reliability of some of the revenue and savings measures also included in the legislative spending bill.
Pressing the governor
A total of $235 million in spending is now on the sidelines pending revenue performance.
“The buck stops with me,” said Murphy, who favored the adoption of a millionaires tax to bring in more predictable revenues. “I’ve got to make sure that we are within our means.”
Meanwhile, other language in the FY2020 budget law makes available “an amount not to exceed $1 million for institutions participating in the New Jersey Civic Information Consortium,” but that funding is also “subject to the approval” of the Murphy administration.
Despite the ongoing funding holdup, Rispoli said the consortium’s grassroots backers remain committed to bolstering local news coverage in New Jersey and will continue to press the governor to make the full investment the state budget calls for.
“As each day passes, there are countless communities across the state that are left in the dark about important decisions elected officials are making, left out of discussions about how their tax dollars are being used, and left without information about what’s happening in their local schools,” Rispoli said.
“We will continue to work alongside (the) administration, the Legislature and our allies to ensure New Jersey residents have local news that serves their needs,” he said.