By David Cruz
For seven years now, Gov. Chris Christie has made the Legislature his personal foil, touting bipartisanship when it suited his purposes and berating them when convenient. By most accounts the relationship has benefitted the governor much more than lawmakers, and so it was with some surprise this week that many lawmakers greeted news about the governor’s book deal deal.
“You know, I have not participated in any discussion on the development of this bill,” said Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. “I haven’t seen it; only read about it. I made a quip that if he wrote a book I would like to add a few footnotes, but I was just joking.”
The bill — which Weinberg says she will not support — allows the governor, or any other state employee, to make money off a book. But it also means raises for the governor’s cabinet, raising the max salary to $175,000. Judges would see a 6 percent increase over two years, and then annual raises tied to the consumer price index. Finally, it gives lawmakers another $30,000 for staff salaries.
“This isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue,” said Senate co-sponsor Kevin O’Toole. “This is to ensure we are able to attract and retain the best and brightest to serve the people of New Jersey.”
As for the book deal provision? “This is not a unique provision,” he said. “It’s simply a First Amendment right that has been denied in New Jersey.”
But on the heels of the last Christie deal with lawmakers, one critic says this is just too much.
“I think it’s wrong. I think it’s absolutely wrong,” said Republican Sen. Jennifer Beck. “This is barely a month after 7.1 million people experienced a gas tax increase of $1.3 billion. So the Legislature just voted to raise taxes on the vast majority of our citizens and is now turning around and giving raises to the political elites.”
Lawmakers point out that this is not a raise for them. It’s for their staffs, who haven’t seen a raise in years, but Beck says public service should never be about money.
“Public service isn’t about earning a big paycheck,” countered Beck. “If that’s why you’re entering public service then you’re entering for the wrong reason because this is really about serving. This is about serving the residents. It’s not about making a lot of money. If you want to make a lot of money, you should stay in the private sector and earn a big paycheck and work 14 hours a day.”
The Senate president had no comment about the bill or whether it represented a somewhat tone-deaf set of priorities, as critics, like the Democratic front-runner to succeed Christie, suggested.
“I came out harshly about the book [deal] as I did about the [State House] renovation and finding $300 million,” said Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. “We’re desperate for money; we’re desperate for focused leadership for this state.”
There are three bills that will be considered by lawmakers in committee tomorrow — the salaries and book deal bill, another bill that would appoint 20 new judges as part of judicial reform efforts and a third bill that would end the practice of requiring government to post legal ads in newspapers.
Mary Alice Williams: David, what’s this about?
Cruz: Well this last bill, really they’re calling it the governor’s revenge bill because even those close to him say that it’s his chance to stick it to newspapers for their coverage of not only his administration, but also specifically the bridge trial.
Williams: You’re an old newspaper man. What’s the real impact on newspapers that are already a vanishing breed?
Cruz: It depends on who you talk to, but I used to work at a small, local weekly and a lot of those small newspapers depend… It’s really an existential crisis to them because they put out those legal notices, and these are the things like the Zoning Board meeting and the building that’s going up for sale and so on. They live on those things and if you take them away, small newspapers will very likely die.
Williams: Will it save money for taxpayers, which is the contention?
Cruz: It depends on who you talk to also. The governor says it’s going to save $80 million but that’s … kind of unrealistic.