TRENTON – The state Senate voted down a resolution 20-19 that would have disapproved the contract in which New York-based WNET will take over the operations of New Jersey Network, effectively turning off the lights on the long-time “Jersey-centric” network.
Gov. Chris Christie’s administration has said the state will save $11 million by no longer having to support NJN.
Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) of Teaneck, who sponsored the resolution, SCR 201, said the WNET deal does not fully cut ties between state funding and the network operations. She said residents will still be on the hook for such things as tower maintenance fees.
“We do know New Jersey will absorb some of the costs,” she said. “This is not a win for the taxpayers.”
She also wondered what the state was willing to do with the studio if NJN moves out, to which the treasurer told her it could be converted to office space.
“I thought we had trimmed our workforce,” she said.
However, Sen. Kevin O’Toole asked Weinberg what things she objected to.
Weinberg said there are no guarantees in the contract for a nightly newscast, and no guarantees of television reporters covering the Statehouse.
O’Toole said the network’s eventual end shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“This day was coming,” he said.
He added that WNET guaranteed at least 20 hours of state coverage and will hire 20 state employees. He said transferring NJN’s functions to WNET will help “save the mission” of public television.
“You want to kill public television, than you vote for this resolution,” he said.
However, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18) of Metuchen said the resolution is not irrelevant.
“We can go back to the table. We can renegotiate,” she said.
She said the “in-depth” NJN plays a vital journalistic role, especially at a time when print journalism has seen devastating cuts.
“It holds government accountable to the people,” she said.
Sen. Ron Rice (D-28) of Newark and Sen. Dick Codey (D-27) of West Orange also questioned the motivation behind dissolving NJN as a way to save money.
“Eleven million dollars is not going to make or break (the state),” Rice said.
Codey added that if there was ever a time when New Jersey needed more television coverage, given all the big issues that are being tackled, it is now.
Sen. Shirley Turner dubbed NJN “a jewel in New Jersey’s crown,” adding that it was unfair to lay off 130 people in one of the worst economic climates.
However, Sen. Nia Gill (D-34) of Montclair, said the resolution would have little impact, since the Legislature lacks the legal ability to come up with a new deal.
Sen. Joe Kyrillos (R-13), who opposed the resolution, commended Gill for her comments, saying the deal will save millions of dollars a year.
While he commended NJN for the work they’ve done all these years, he pointed out it’s “a new era with new responsibilities.”
“You could vote to reject this measure, and the Legislature would still not have the right (to negotiate). “We do not have the power by statute.”
In the future, Gill recommended that lawmakers “read the bill” to avoid transferring authority.
A similar resolution in the Assembly, sponsored by Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan, passed 46-30 last Thursday, largely on party-line votes.
At a press conference this afternoon, Diegnan said about WNET’s planned takeover, “It just is a bad deal from top to bottom. I think this entire deal should be thrown out.”
Assemblyman John Burzichelli (D-3) of Paulsboro, said the budget proposed by the Democrats includes $2 million that would enable New Jersey Network to continue operating for about 120 days.
The extra time, he said, would have enabled the public television network to negotiate a deal that would be more favorable to residents and provided coverage of New Jersey government and politics.
O’Toole dismissed that idea saying, “it’s not going to work.”