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N.J. lawmakers kill Christie book deal, hold off on newspaper bill

TRENTON - Within a week, Gov. Christie and the state's two top elected Democrats moved to change laws to let Christie cash in on a book deal, grant sweeping raises across state government, and threaten a source of revenue for New Jersey newspapers.

TRENTON - Within a week, Gov. Christie and the state's two top elected Democrats moved to change laws to let Christie cash in on a book deal, grant sweeping raises across state government, and threaten a source of revenue for New Jersey newspapers.

More often than not, that playbook has been successful for Christie. But not on Monday, as lawmakers objected to a lack of transparency in the rush to pass the legislation and questioned whether the measures were sound policy.

Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson) did not allow a vote on either bill Monday, and said he would not reconsider the bill that would have changed state ethics law to benefit Christie and granted raises to various government officials.

Prieto said the Assembly Democratic caucus, which deliberated for hours before Monday's vote, would continue to consider ending the long-standing requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers, a measure vehemently opposed by the state's media companies but aggressively supported by Christie.

Though Christie promised to push for the bill again after the holidays, the Assembly's failure to call a vote marked a departure from past occasions when Democratic leaders had successfully fast-tracked controversial legislation.

"This time, the rank-and-file members said no," said Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club and a longtime Statehouse political observer. They "were tired of the leadership always going along with Christie and folding like an accordion."

Republicans were also divided. Notably, Christie's top ally in the Assembly, Republican Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, would not publicly commit to supporting the book deal earlier Monday.

"I don't think I have to make a decision on it," he told reporters before Prieto announced that no vote would be held.

Although lawmakers have long hoped for the raises - particularly for judges - some balked at the prospect of rewarding Christie.

The governor's "lack of popularity among members made that discussion probably more difficult than it otherwise would be," said Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D., Gloucester), a sponsor of the bill to grant the raises and change the law to allow Christie to profit from a book. "In my mind it came down to that."

Christie's approval rating among New Jersey voters dropped to 18 percent in a Fairleigh Dickinson PublicMind poll released this month.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) did not take reporters' questions after the Senate session. After waiting for the Assembly to act, the Senate did not take up either bill.

Through a spokesman, Sweeney would not say whether the Christie book/state employee salary bill was also dead in the Senate.

Christie's spokesman said Monday night that it was "acceptable to the governor" that the Assembly would need more time to consider the legal notices bill, which would allow publication on government websites.

But ending the newspaper publication requirement will be a "top priority" after the holidays, said spokesman Jeremy Rosen, repeating an unsourced estimate while blasting the requirement as "an $80 million annual tax by billionaire newspaper owners on the people of New Jersey."

"If the billionaires dispute that, they should open their books to the public to prove otherwise," he said. The governor's office previously referred to the net worthy of Gannett Co., which owns the Bergen Record, the Asbury Park Press, and the Camden Courier-Post, and the Newhouse family, which owns the Newark Star-Ledger. It bashed the legal notices requirement as "corporate welfare."

Christie's administration has approved more than $7 billion in tax credits to corporations since he took office in 2010, including packages to Fortune 500 companies.

The New Jersey Press Association, citing a 2011 survey, says the annual cost of legal ads is closer to $20 million, one-third of which is paid by governments with taxpayer dollars. It argued that the bill would put 200 to 300 people out of work, force the closure of some weekly newspapers, and weaken transparency.

The bill would have "an indeterminate fiscal impact on the state and local government agencies," according to the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services, which said it had limited information on legal notice costs incurred by the state and local governments.

The disparity in cost estimates merits a more thorough vetting of the newspaper legislation, if it is truly needed, said Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who is running to replace Christie as governor in January 2018.

"There are no facts," said Wisniewski, who has accused Christie of pushing the bill as "revenge" against the press. "That's a really dangerous area to be legislating in."

Asked if lawmakers had conducted a proper cost-analysis before rushing to pass the bill, Prieto grew irritated. "Proper cost analysis? You have that at your fingertips. So I don't need you to ask me that. . . . Every newspaper knows the amount that they collect."

Speaking to reporters after the voting session, he added that ending the legal notice requirement would cut property taxes and said, "Some of you guys need to do your homework on it."

Amy Buckman, manager for public relations and special events at Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the Inquirer and Daily News, said, "We do not release that level of revenue detail" regarding legal notices.

Fred Groser, chief revenue and marketing officer for PMN, said, "While our newspapers do receive revenue from legal notices placed by the State of New Jersey and some of its municipalities, we are not able to analyze the specific impact the current proposal would have, as many municipalities could choose to continue publishing public notices in newspapers, even if that publication is no longer required by the state."

The raises included in the bill that would have allowed Christie to profit from a book deal carried a potential cost to the state and counties of $7.45 million in 2017 and at least $10.6 million annually after that, according to the Office of Legislative Services.

The state's 120 lawmakers would each have received an additional $30,000 a year for their staffs, and salaries for Supreme Court justices and Superior Court judges would have increased 3 percent a year in both 2017 and 2018, with future automatic adjustments based on the Consumer Price Index.

The bill also would have allowed for new discretionary raises. Most members of the governor's cabinet and members of the Board of Public Utilities would have a new maximum salary of $175,000, up from $141,000.

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