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Christie takes political hit, but he's still a force in Trenton

No doubt about it, Gov. Christie suffered a defeat Monday when New Jersey lawmakers rejected a bill that would have let him cash in on a book deal in exchange for raises for officials across state government, including legislative staff.

No doubt about it, Gov. Christie suffered a defeat Monday when New Jersey lawmakers rejected a bill that would have let him cash in on a book deal in exchange for raises for officials across state government, including legislative staff.

The question is: Will Monday's events fundamentally change the dynamic between the Democratic-controlled Legislature and Christie as the Republican governor prepares for his last year in office?

Some lawmakers seem to feel emboldened to challenge Christie and the Legislature's Democratic leadership, which had supported the book deal.

"We proved what is possible when we stand together to speak out against the corrupt transactional politics that have dominated Trenton for too long," Sen. John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), who is running to succeed Christie as governor, wrote in a fund-raising email Tuesday.

But the basic rules in Trenton remain the same. New Jersey's governor is considered the most powerful executive of any state, given his authority over a vast array of appointments and the ability to veto any line item in the budget.

Christie has not been shy in exercising those powers. Perhaps most memorably, he vetoed $900 million from the Democrats' fiscal 2012 proposed budget, including funding for an organization that helps abused children. A few weeks after the veto, Christie announced a federal grant for the group.

So, to accomplish anything, Democrats need Christie's support - and vice versa.

And while Christie will leave office in January 2018, all 120 seats in the Legislature are up for election next November, meaning lawmakers could face repercussions at the ballot box.

Even if Monday's development wasn't a tectonic shift, it did expose Christie's uncomfortable reality: His political capital has diminished considerably - even within his own party.

The Assembly Republican caucus was split over the legislation that tied Christie's book deal to provisions that would have granted raises to judges, legislative staff, and executive branch officials.

While Christie was still running for president, Republicans joined Democrats in the Senate to vote to override the governor's veto of gun-control legislation. (The override died in the Assembly.)

In a possible preview of how he will govern in his final year, Christie is vowing to fight for another bill that stalled Monday that would eliminate a requirement that legal notices be published in newspapers.

In doing so, he's reprising a strategy that has worked well: vilifying a perceived enemy to taxpayers.

"Billionaire newspaper owners unmasked themselves as just another special interest feeding at the Gov't trough," Christie wrote Tuesday on Twitter as he repeated an unsourced claim that the mandate costs taxpayers $80 million annually. The New Jersey Press Association, citing a 2011 survey, estimates that the requirement costs about $20 million, one-third of which is paid by governments with taxpayer dollars.

While this tactic worked against teachers' unions in Christie's first-term effort to change the state's pension and health benefit systems, the governor so far has been unable to build public support against the press.

Given support by all four top legislative leaders - Senate President Stephen Sweeney, Senate Minority Leader Thomas H. Kean Jr., Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, and Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick - Christie may have expected easy passage.

But while the bill passed committee last week and was scheduled for a vote Monday, Prieto could not gather enough support to pass it. The Senate had planned to vote only if it was successful in the lower house.

Another factor: Christie's job approval rating is historically low at 18 percent, so his ability to rally the public behind any initiative has diminished.

At least publicly, Christie is undeterred. "I'm going to leave this job exactly the way I came into it," the governor said last month in Atlantic City. "Loudly."

Spokesman Jeremy Rosen said Monday that the legal notice bill "will be a top priority when we return from the holidays." Prieto also vowed to revisit the legislation.

Critics have characterized the legal notices bill as Christie's attempt to gain revenge against newspapers for their coverage of the George Washington Bridge lane-closing scandal, which resulted in criminal convictions of two of the governor's former top aides last month. The political retribution scandal helped cost Christie the GOP vice-presidential nomination. Christie's office has denied that accusation.

Newspaper executives and watchdog groups have argued that giving local governments the option to publish legal notices on their own websites could give officials leverage over media companies by threatening to cut off a revenue source.

When similar legislation was up for debate in February 2011, a Camden Courier-Post journalist wrote that the bill's "cost benefits are anecdotal, and it could greatly jeopardize government transparency, especially since it would allow officials to discriminate against newspapers that publish critical or investigative journalism or control/discourage others from doing so."

The author was Rosen, who is now Christie's spokesman.

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman

Staff writer Maddie Hanna contributed to this article.