NJ State House Recap: Book Deal Dies and Legal Notices Bill Delayed

New Jersey governor Chris Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie and State Senate President Steve Sweeney. PolitickerNJ

New Jersey governor Chris Christie suffered a major defeat Monday when both houses of the legislature declined to post bills to allow him to capitalize on a book deal while in office and hand over the duty of local newspapers to publish legal notices in their ad pages to municipalities in return. The press widely characterized as a revenge plot on the governor’s part against journalists, who have offered him a wealth of unfavorable coverage because of the Bridgegate scandal.

The book deal is reportedly dead, but Christie’s office issued a statement Monday saying that “if the Assembly wants more time to consider the legal notices bill, that is acceptable to the governor,” and that the bill “will be a top priority when we return from the holidays.”

The bills’ downfall behind closed doors came after press coverage led to outcry from voters and advocates alike. Though critics won the battle yesterday, Rider University political scientist Ben Dworkin called its path to becoming law in the new year “hard but not impossible.”

“It’s certainly a blow to Christie because he was the one on the one who would immediately benefit,” Dworkin said. “Leaving aside the relative merits of the book deal, the optics of the legislation, politically, were terrible. And the opponents were certainly able to galvanize their supporters across the state in opposition.”

Proponents argue that the bill would save the state a significant amount of money by turning those notices over to individual towns to publish online, but many have disputed Christie’s numbers. Tom Moran, the editorial page editor of the Star Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, declined to publish an editorial from the governor claiming that it would save $80 million because the piece did not provide a source.

Others have estimated a more modest $8 million in savings and a loss of 200 to 300 newspaper jobs at outlets that depend on the revenue from legal notices. State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg echoed Moran in a lengthy statement after the vote.

“The governor still has not been able to produce any statistics to back up his $80 million claim. If the governor thinks this is the top priority for the new year, rather than safety issues at NJ Transit, pay equity, pension obligations, a $15 minimum wage, a new Port Authority bus terminal, the Gateway Tunnel, preventing gun violence by domestic violence abusers, New Jersey spending the least amount on smoking cessation programs – just to name a few – and the highest foreclosure rate in the nation, which if we could hold down would do more to reduce legal ads costs than anything else we could do, he’s more out of touch than we thought.”

Phil Murphy, the former Goldman Sachs executive expected to make short work of the Democratic primary in the 2017 gubernatorial race, praised the Democratic lawmakers who walked back their support of the deal.

“This deal benefited the insiders at the expense of New Jerseyans who demand an open and transparent government that does not reward the politically connected. The Legislature has done the right thing in heeding the outraged voices of the people who rightfully saw this play for what it is—a craven ploy to enrich Governor Christie and kill an independent press corps at the expense of New Jersey’s families.”

One of Murphy’s primary challengers, former Clinton Undersecretary of the Treasury Jim Johnson, heaped scorn on Democratic Senate President and Assembly Speaker Steve Sweeney and Vince Prieto for their willingness to cut the deal with the governor. Johnson is opposing Murphy along with Assemblyman John Wisniewski.

“While the people of New Jersey were able to shine a light on this backroom deal and stop Trenton from passing these lousy bills, let’s be clear: New Jersey’s working families are no better off today than yesterday. Governor Christie and the Democratic leaders behind this measure did nothing to address our state’s soaring income inequality, improve our schools, curb the number of foreclosures, or make our tax system more fair.”