TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — After a furious lobbying effort by the state’s newspapers, a measure supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to scrap a requirement that local governments publish legal notices in newspapers was delayed until at least after the new year.
Newspapers and other opponents said the measure, which would allow government agencies to publish the notices on their own websites, amounted to Christie targeting the media over their coverage of him as a two-term governor, failed presidential candidate and adviser to Republican President-elect Donald Trump.
Christie argued that the measure had nothing to do with targeting the press and was instead a reform effort to fix a requirement that burdens taxpayers, whose money goes to local governments, which pay newspapers to run notices. A spokesman for Christie said the change “will be a top priority when we return from the holidays.”
“The governor has fought this fight for the taxpayers for seven years, and he will continue this fight at the beginning of year eight,” Christie spokesman Jeremy Rosen said Monday.
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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. He said New Jersey would be the first state to make the change.
Newspapers responded with fiery editorials and ad campaigns against the measure, with most of the newspapers owned by the Gannett Co. Inc. in the state running a front-page editorial urging voters to “Drain the Swamp in Trenton.”
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 the bill will be a priority early next year. Monday was the final voting session of 2016.
Democratic Assemblyman John Wisniewski, a Christie opponent running in next year’s Democratic primary to replace him, called it a “revenge bill” and a “politically motivated crackdown on the press in New Jersey.”
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 couldn’t be fully determined.
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.
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.
The New Jersey Association of Counties estimates the state’s 21 counties would save between $1 million and $1.25 million a year. The League of Municipalities said 147 towns that responded to a survey paid $1.05 million in legal ads last year. That’s about a quarter of the towns in the state.