New Jersey's Democrat-led Legislature on Thursday advanced legislation supported by Republican Gov. Chris Christie to scrap a requirement that local governments publish legal notices in newspapers and instead allow them to go on their own websites.
Newspapers and Christie's opponents criticized the measure, saying it amounts to Christie targeting the media over its coverage of the two-term governor, failed presidential candidate and adviser to President-elect Donald Trump.
Assembly and Senate spending committees approved the legislation Thursday, advancing it for a floor vote as soon as Monday.
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State and local government agencies across the country are required to pay to publish the legal notices for public meetings, contract bids and other matters. The lobbying groups representing them in New Jersey say the measure would help save money, and that the option to post notices on their own websites acknowledges changes in technology.
Lawmakers across the country have proposed eliminating the print requirement as newspapers have continued to lose readership. The New Jersey Press Association, which is lobbying against the legislation, 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."
"This legal notices reform bill ... was first proposed in 2010, not 2016," Christie spokesman Brian Murray said in a statement. "It had nothing to do with the press then and nothing to do with them now."
He said the legislation will save $80 million spent on legal notices by governments, businesses and residents. 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 revenues come from property taxes.
The state's Office of Legislative Services still was working on an analysis to determine the measure's financial impact. When a similar measure was introduced in 2011, the group said it could not determine the financial impact on local governments.
The New Jersey Press Association estimated at the time 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.
The association's attorney, Thomas Cafferty, told lawmakers rates have not been raised since 1983. Lawmakers didn't consider a proposal from the association to cut the rate paid by governments by 50 percent while raising rates on businesses.
Richard Vezza, publisher of the Star-Ledger, testified that the source of the governor's figures is murky and unreliable. He said the legislation could cost the state's newspaper industry up to 300 jobs.
"For all we know, it could be someone with a dartboard coming up with these numbers," he told lawmakers.
The New Jersey Association of Counties estimates the state's 21 counties would save between $1 million and $1.25 million a year, and the League of Municipalities said 147 towns that responded to a survey paid $1.05 million in legal ads in 2015. That's about a quarter of the towns in the state.
While noting the financial hit they would take from the change, editorial boards from the state's major newspapers have slammed what the measure could mean for transparency.
An editorial in The Record said public notices ensure government transparency and it's "foolhardy to believe that making government less accountable is good for anyone aside from government officials."
But John Donnadio, head of the New Jersey Association of Counties, said the measure would streamline the process of posting legal notices and save some money.
"We understand the impact on the media industry, (but) counties, municipalities and school districts are all struggling to make ends meet, every little bit helps," Donnadio said.