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 is set for a vote Monday.
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Newspapers and other opponents say the measure amounts to Christie targeting the media over its coverage of him as a two-time governor, failed presidential candidate and adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.
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 the online publishing platform medium.com, Christie suggested that 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.
George White, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, said Monday that 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. Both the Assembly and Senate are expected to vote on it Monday.
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's spokesman Brian Murray said $60 million of that figure is for pending foreclosure notices, which are required to be publicized. The administration argues that the bill amounts to property tax relief since local government revenues come 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 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 have not been raised since 1983, according to the association. 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.