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Christie, newspapers wrangle over his claim of $80M in legal ad savings

Sticking to his unsourced estimate of taxpayer savings from a bill that would strip legal notices from newspapers, Gov. Christie on Sunday attacked the state's press association and accused newspapers of refusing to publish a commentary he wrote in support of the legislation.

Sticking to his unsourced estimate of taxpayer savings from a bill that would strip legal notices from newspapers, Gov. Christie on Sunday attacked the state's press association and accused newspapers of refusing to publish a commentary he wrote in support of the legislation.

The governor's office did not respond to a request for comment on which newspapers had denied publishing the piece. The editorial page editor of the Bergen Record said he had not been contacted about publishing Christie's op-ed.

Tom Moran, editorial page editor of the Star-Ledger, told Christie's spokesman that he would publish the piece, but only if the governor's office provided sources supporting its claim that the legal-notices bill would save taxpayers $80 million a year - the same standard required of all submissions, according to Moran. The office did not, he said.

The legislation, which has been on the fast track in Trenton and is scheduled for a vote Monday, would allow legal notices to be published on government websites instead of in newspapers.

The measure would have "an indeterminate fiscal impact" on the state and local government agencies, according to the Office of Legislative Services. The office, which released a statement on the bill Friday, said that detailed information on the state's legal notice costs was "not readily available."

While local government agencies that choose to post their legal notices on a government website would "likely achieve some level of savings," the office said, it found limited information on the current costs to local governments.

Christie repeated his $80 million estimate in the op-ed, which was released Sunday by the governor's office and posted at, a site that allows people to self-publish. The governor - who is also facing backlash over a bill that would grant raises to state officials while changing state law to allow him to profit from a book - said he was "left with no choice" but to release the op-ed himself, because newspapers had denied his requests.

The governor - whose office has attributed the $80 million estimate to "an internal tally of a sampling for daily newspapers in New Jersey - said it was "unconscionable" that homeowners facing foreclosure were charged an average of $910 to publish notices in newspapers and that their money could be saved if they could post notices online for free.

Those legal notices earned newspapers "approximately $14 million for the 12-month period ending in October 2016," Christie said. He did not specify the source of the figures.

The New Jersey Press Association said last week that taxpayers and businesses spent around $20 million a year on legal notices in 2011, when the association conducted a survey on the issue. George White, the executive director of the press association, said the figure "may be a bit higher than $20 million now due to the unfortunate sustained bump in foreclosure notices."

One-third of legal notice costs are paid for by governments with taxpayer dollars, White said. The rest is paid for by private entities or reimbursed to governments, he said.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, would lead to the loss of 200 to 300 jobs and force the closure of some weekly newspapers, according to the press association.

In his op-ed Sunday, Christie dismissed the press association's arguments as "merely scare tactics by their paid Trenton lobbyists designed to protect the interests of newspaper companies who argue for a free press, but are really arguing for a taxpayer-funded subsidy in disguise."

He also said the association's contention that the bill could lead to increased costs ignored that the bill would not force government entities to stop publishing legal notices in newspapers.

Opponents of the bill say the impact is not just one of cost or revenue loss to newspapers, but a loss of transparency and accountability. They argue that a third party should be responsible for publishing legal notices, and that fewer people will see the notices if they are on government websites.

According to the press association, no other state allows governments to publish their own legal notices.

On Saturday, a number of Gannett-owned newspapers in the state - including the Courier Post and the Asbury Park Press - ran front-page editorials against the bill titled "Drain the swamp in Trenton." The editorials noted that lawmakers were simultaneously advancing a bill that would change state law to allow Christie to write a book, while granting raises to state officials and judges that would cost an estimated $10 million a year.

Also voicing opposition were Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Sen. Robert Gordon, both Bergen County Democrats, who said in a statement Friday that it was "deeply concerning to us that this legislation is reportedly being pushed by the governor to exact revenge on the press whose investigative reporting helped to uncover Bridgegate and the involvement of the governor's staff."

On Friday night, Christie posted a series of Tweets attacking Weinberg and Gordon, accusing them of flip-flopping on the issue.

Weinberg "voted FOR very same bill in 2004! Wow!" Christie wrote.

Weinberg Tweeted back: "That was 12 years ago. If you haven't noticed, the world has changed somewhat. Now more than ever we need a #freepress."

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Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.