TRENTON - A bill that would let Gov. Christie cash in on a book deal while giving raises to cabinet officers, judges, and lawmakers' staffs advanced out of committees in the Senate and Assembly on Thursday, clearing the way for a vote next week.
At the time of Thursday's hearings, legislative analysts had not yet released an estimate of the cost of the bill, introduced three days earlier.
But any concerns over cost did not dissuade the majority of lawmakers on the panels. The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee released the bill by a 9-3 vote and the Assembly Appropriations Committee by 6-1.
"Yes, this bill may increase spending by $10 million. But you look at each item in it," said Sen. Samuel Thompson (R., Middlesex), arguing that the raises for lawmakers' staffs and others were long overdue.
Most also expressed no serious reservations about changing state law to enable Christie to receive compensation if he writes a book while in office.
"I was so excited to get here to allow the governor to write a book," Sen. Paul Sarlo (D., Bergen), chair of the Budget and Appropriations Committee, quipped as he opened the hearing.
While saying he was "not a big fan" of putting the book provision in the legislation, Sarlo said linking it to the salary increases was a practical measure: "If we need to include that . . . to make sure it gets the bipartisan support and the governor's signature, so be it."
In the Assembly committee hearing, some lawmakers voiced support for the judicial salary increases. "This is a sausage bill," said Michael Patrick Carroll (R., Morris), referring to its numerous components.
But raises for judges are needed, Carroll said, and he said he was "willing to swallow quite hard to make sure that happens."
The bill would increase by 3 percent each year in 2017 and 2018 the salaries for Supreme Court justices, who make more than $185,000, as well as the 443 Superior Court judges, who make between $165,000 and $175,000. After that, it would provide for automatic annual adjustments tied to the Consumer Price Index.
Salaries would increase for employees with salaries tied to those of Superior Court judges, including workers' compensation and administrative law judges, county clerks, and sheriffs.
The bill says judicial salaries were last increased in 2009. Proponents said judges have been paying significant portions of their salary toward pension and health-care costs.
Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth), who opposed the bill, called the annual increases "insane." In light of the recent gasoline tax increase, she said, "it's a slap in the face" to New Jersey residents.
Also increased would be the annual allowance per lawmaker for member staff services, from $110,000 to $140,000. The allotment has not been increased in 14 years, said Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R., Passaic), arguing in favor of the bill. New Jersey has 40 senators and 80 Assembly members.
Certain cabinet officers and Board of Public Utilities members also would see their maximum salary raised to $175,000. The current limit is $141,000.
Christie would be free to take money for writing a book, as the bill would change a law that prohibits certain executive branch officers from receiving forms of compensation beyond government salary except for investment and rental income, to add an exclusion for income from books or published works.
Ethics experts say the law is intended to ensure that high-level officials are fully committed to their jobs and are not perceived as taking advantage of their positions.
Many state voters feel used by Christie, said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. The governor's approval rating dropped to 18 percent in a recent Fairleigh Dickinson University poll.
But passing this bill could damage the perception voters have of New Jersey government as a whole, Murray said, testifying as a citizen against the bill Thursday.
"We have entered a period of unprecedented distrust in the institutions of government at the national, state and local level," Murray said. As lawmakers trade with Christie, there's "a trade-off in public trust," Murray said.
For union workers in the state, whose take-home pay has decreased in recent years, "to tie this to personally enriching one public official whose family made $913,000 last year . . . is beyond the pale," said Seth Hahn, representing the Communications Workers of America.
Among lawmakers opposing the bill, Beck said that for Christie to write a book while in office could "jeopardize the functionality of government itself," depending on what it reveals. Christie has not publicly acknowledged that he plans to write a book, much less said what one would be about.
Defending the governor - and future New Jersey leaders - O'Toole said the ability to write a book was a "fundamental First Amendment" right. "Other states have done it," he said, referring to New York and Wisconsin. "I think anybody in the executive department should have that same right."
Others didn't seem to care.
"Why not?" said Sen. Brian Stack (D., Hudson). "I don't see what the fuss is being made. . . . Maybe when all is said and done, I'll write a book about Hudson County."