NorthJersey.com

Christie, On Twitter, Upbraids Dems Over Newspaper Bill

A bill to end the mandatory publication of legal notices in newspapers might not produce any savings.

The Record (NorthJersey.com) — December 17, 2016

By Nicholas Pugliese and Dustin Racioppi

Gov. Chris Christie lashed out at Democratic critics on Twitter Friday evening over a bill to end the mandatory publication of legal notices in newspapers, claiming it would save taxpayers $80 million annually — a figure unsubstantiated by the latest cost analysis and disputed by the state's press association.

A fiscal analysis published Friday afternoon by the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services said the bill might not produce any savings. Opponents of the bill have testified that placing the notices online could cost local governments more money.

The legislation — part of a deal to give raises to political appointees, judges and other officials — is said to be a way for Christie to punish the press for critical coverage of his administration.

The bill is being fast-tracked through the Democratic-controlled Legislature and is scheduled for a final vote on Monday.

The New Jersey Press Association estimates the cost of legal ads for taxpayers at $8 million and for private businesses at $12 million. Laws requiring the publication of the ads in third-party publications were enacted nearly a century ago to ensure government transparency and shield the press from governmental pressure.f

In its report, the OLS said "the bill will have an indeterminate fiscal impact on the state and local government agencies" and cited the press association's figures as the most recent authoritative financial estimate.

"No more recent data on these costs has been obtained by the OLS," the agency wrote.

A 2015 survey by the League of Municipalities found that 146 New Jersey municipalities, which does not include cities, spent a combined $1.05 million on legal notices that year.

County governments spend a combined $1 million to $1.25 million annually on legal notices, the New Jersey Association of Counties told the OLS.

A spokesman for Christie declined to comment Friday on the analysis. Christie himself did not respond to a Twitter message seeking comment on the disparity between his estimate and the one from OLS.

Several legislative sources have told The Record that Christie is pushing the bill to punish the state's newspapers. Assemblyman John Wisniewski, D-Middlesex, has even taken to calling it the "revenge bill."

Friday evening on Twitter, Christie pushed back on the characterization and attacked three of the bill's Democratic detractors — Sen. Loretta Weinberg of Teaneck, Sen. Bob Gordon of Fair Lawn and Wisniewski — for supporting a 2004 version of the measure.

Christie called out each lawmaker's "hypocrisy" for their "flip flops."

Weinberg said the economy has changed in the past 12 years and shot back her own tweets at the governor.

Gordon, for his part, said he changed his position in light of the impact the bill could have on newspapers today.

"To tell you the truth, there have been times more recently when I haven't had particularly warm feelings toward certain newspapers, but I'm trying to keep in mind that there are bigger issues involved," he said. "And those issues are the importance of having independent journalists to act as watchdogs. It's just an important check on government.

"I dare the governor to present his cost analysis for public scrutiny," he continued. "I've never heard from elected officials on the municipal level about this. And they can't demonstrate the cost of going online represents a savings."

Wisniewski, who is running for governor, did not respond to The Record for comment, but on Twitter said, like Weinberg, that his vote in 2004 came during a "fundamentally different era."

"But I opposed it a few years ago," Wisniewski said, referring to a more recent version of the bill, adding he "will vote against your revenge bill now."

Senate and Assembly committees approved the measure on Thursday despite the fact the OLS had not had time to conduct a cost analysis. The bill was introduced on Monday and posted for committee votes three days later.

"This is one that I think is good for the taxpayers of New Jersey," Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, D-Secaucus, the sponsor of the Assembly version of the bill, said before the votes.

"I think it's going to save money, so that's why I support it," echoed Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren, who is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill.

Newspaper publishers and others warned that the bill could result in the loss of as many as 300 jobs, force some publications to shut down, and hand governments a lever with which to strong-arm local newspapers.

"If the main point of this bill is to save money, we don't understand how you could possibly put it forth without understanding what the cost would be," one woman, Beverly Brown Ruggia of New Jersey Citizen Action, told lawmakers on Thursday.

The legal notices measure would give governments the option to publish such public records as budgets, meeting announcements, tax liens and foreclosure notices online as opposed to in print.

Under current law, governments and some private entities are required to publish the notices in locally circulated newspapers. The rates for such ads are set by statute and have not risen since 1983.

The OLS said in its analysis that some government agencies could save money under the bill if the cost of printing legal ads outweighs the cost of creating and maintaining a notice website, but it could not estimate what the costs associated with the notice websites would be.

The agency added that the state Office of Information Technology, for example, "has informally indicated that achieving collaboration between all government agencies and ensuring uniformity, consistent updates, and website accuracy would create a significant workload for OIT" and could result in increased costs.

Meanwhile, some publications in New Jersey derive as much as 15 percent of their annual revenues from legal ads, one publisher, Stephen Parker of New Jersey Hills Media Group, testified on Thursday.

"We are going to be pouring water on a drowning industry," said Democratic Sen. Shirley Turner of Mercer County, the sole lawmaker to vote against the legislation on Thursday. "We will also be defying the constitution by taking away freedom of the press at a time when we need greater transparency and open government."

The full Senate and Assembly are to vote Monday on the bill. If successful, the bill will head to Christie's desk and the governor could sign it into law within hours.

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