New Jersey Herald

Vote On Public Notice Bill Delayed

Opponents say Christie is targeting the media; supporters claim measure would save taxpayers' money

New Jersey Herald — December 20, 2016

TRENTON (AP) — Legislation supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to scrap a requirement that local governments publish legal notices in newspapers and instead allow them to post the notices on their own websites failed to come up for a vote on Monday.

Newspapers and other opponents said the measure amounted to Christie targeting the media over their coverage of him as a two-time governor, failed presidential candidate and adviser to Republican President-elect Donald Trump.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said his members "engaged in a robust discussion" about legal ads and "opinions varied as to how best we can maintain transparency in this ever-evolving information age." He said lawmakers will continue the discussion, but Monday was the final voting session of 2016.

A spokesman for Christie said the change "will be a top priority when we return from the holidays."

Christie argues the requirement burdens taxpayers, whose money goes to local government, which pays newspapers to run notices. In an opinion-editorial published over the weekend on medium.com, Christie suggested the New Jersey Press Association, which opposes the legislation, was "shameful" and self-serving.

"The Constitution guarantees a free press, not a government-subsidized one," he wrote.

The executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, George White, said at least nine other states reviewed the newspaper publication requirement and decided to keep it. He said the proposal could cost taxpayers if local governments have to hire additional workers to handle publishing legal notices.

Publishers testified last week that the legislation could decimate the industry, costing up to 300 jobs.

Lawmakers across the country have proposed eliminating the print requirement. The New Jersey Press Association says New Jersey would be the first state to make the change.

One Christie opponent in the Legislature called it a "politically motivated crackdown on the press in New Jersey." Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, who is running for governor in the Democratic primary next year, also called it a "revenge bill."

Phil Murphy, a fellow Democrat also seeking the governorship, called it a "vendetta."

Christie argues the bill would save $80 million spent on legal notices by governments, businesses and residents. Christie spokesman Brian Murray said $60 million of that figure is for pending foreclosure notices, which are required to be publicized. The administration argues the bill amounts to property tax relief since local government revenue comes from property taxes.

The state's Office of Legislative Services says the fiscal impact is "indeterminate."

The New Jersey Press Association estimated in 2011, when a similar bill was proposed, that local governments spent $20 million a year, but about 60 percent of that was reimbursed by private entities, including banks paying for foreclosure notices.

Liberal groups, including labor unions and environmental organizations, began handing out plastic backscratchers and charging that the legislation was part of a separate measure to allow Christie to profit from a book deal while in office in exchange for higher legislative staff salaries. In particular, the groups are angry lawmakers failed to move on legislation raising the minimum wage from just under $8.50 an hour to $15 an hour.

"The public recognizes this for what it is: a flighty, backroom, back-scratching deal," said Ann Vardeman, of the liberal activist group New Jersey Citizen Action.

Legal-notice rates haven't been raised since 1983, the association says. Lawmakers last week didn't consider a proposal from the association to cut the rate paid by governments by 50 percent while raising rates on businesses.

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