By David Cruz
“We’ll take a brief recess,” declared Assembly Budget Committee Chairman John Schaer.
That was the last anyone heard of the governor’s book deal or raises for insiders or ending legal notices in newspapers. The plug was pulled on the bills in the safety of the Assembly Democrats Caucus Room. It was the most dramatic defeat for a Christie initiative since, probably ever.
“I disagree,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick, who called the newspaper bill a “Prieto Bill,” dismissing the fact that he was a co-sponsor. Bramnick asked, “You’re saying the Democratic speaker is doing the bidding for the governor?”
It’s actually what every lawmaker we spoke to said in the lead up to yesterday’s rejection of the two bills. Bramnick co-sponsored the newspaper bill, which generated a flood of calls from residents to lawmakers across the state — urged on by the newspaper industry — calling it a threat to transparency, and an example of government abridging a free press.
“For what reason are we coming down on the press?” asked Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg. “Nobody asked us to do this bill. It wasn’t like I got any calls from anyone on the Teaneck council or any other town that I represent saying hey this is a great way to save money.”
But saving money is exactly what the governor said this legal ads bill was all about. $80 million said his office, although those numbers were hotly disputed by both the newspaper industry and the Office of Legislative Services. The governor called it corporate welfare and said the industry was greedily taking money out of residents’ pockets.
“The New Jersey Press Association’s attempts to hang on to an antiquated, self-serving, money making statutory scheme is shameful,” he said in a statement. “The Constitution guarantees a free press, not a government-subsidized one.”
That came off as bit harsh to Horace Corbin, who owns the Westfield Leader, which covers six towns and Union County with a full time staff of less than ten. It is the primary print source of local news for its 7,000 paid subscribers.
“From my point of view that’s ridiculous,” he said. “This is an expensive hobby and something I love to do, and first of all, I don’t take a salary, so I’m not the corporate, greedy bastard the governor may be referring to.”
Legal ads make up about 7 percent of the Leader’s income, enough to cut back on freelancers and possibly layoff a full timer, which Assignment Editor Paul Peyton says hurts readers.
“I think it’s really important because, I mean you can read about what’s happening in Trenton, but you’re only going to find out what’s going on with a development down the street from you, your neighbors putting on a huge addition,” he said. “You know, you’re only going to see that in a local paper in the coverage, but also you’re going to see it in the legals.”
At least for now. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto said the issue will be raised in the next session and the governor called it his top priority for the new year.
“We have a job problem in New Jersey. We have economic problems in New Jersey, all the things that I don’t have to tell you or your audience about,” added Weinberg. “Why is this coming to the forefront?”
As for the rationale for tying the Gov. Christie’s book deal to the other pay raises? He still hasn’t mentioned it once. The Assembly speaker? Not a word. The Senate President? No comment. Bramnick, at least, was direct about it.
“I think individually there’s things in there that aren’t bad ideas,” he said, “but to try to put that kind of bill together in today’s atmosphere is a non-starter. And it was a non-starter.”
It’s hard to see how the governor rebounds from this rebuke, but one lawmaker in the governor’s own party suggested that now might be a good time for Christie to hold one of his patented two-hour press conferences, both to clear the air and perhaps reboot the relationship as he heads into the final year of his term.