TRENTON — A bill that quietly resurfaced Monday that would dismantle a state law requiring governments, businesses, and individuals to publish legal notices in printed newspapers is being pushed by Gov. Chris Christie, an advocate for municipalities confirmed Tuesday.
The bill (S2855/A4429) is an update of a six-year-old proposal that would allow government agencies and municipalities to instead post notices on websites. The New Jersey Press Association says the bill would deliver a blow to Garden State newspapers.
With the last voting session of the year scheduled for Monday, the bill is slated for hearings on Thursday and is on a fast track. Christie, who’s had a rocky relationship with the state’s press, is strongly supporting its passage, lawmakers and local officials say.
Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities, which supports the proposal and advocates for the state’s 565 municipalities that place legal ads in newspapers, said his group didn’t initiate the latest push.
“It did come from the governor’s office,” Darcy said.
“That’s where the interest to restart it came from,” he said. “This isn’t something that we asked to be brought (up for a vote).”
Proponents of the measure argue it will save towns money. Opponents, meanwhile, say it will create confusion and erode transparency, and could slash 200 to 300 jobs in a newspaper industry already reeling from a record decline in ad revenue.
Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson) a prime sponsor of the bill, did not return several calls seeking comment on the reason for the bill’s reemergence.
But another prime backer of the legislation confirmed that the bill that’s being fast tracked has the governor’s blessing.
“I was asked by Sen. Tom Kean (Jr.) if I would be interested in sponsoring the bill,” Sen. Michael Doherty (R-Hunterdon) said. “He approached me and indicated that there was some support in the Legislature in moving bill and the governor would support it.”
The bill, which has bipartisan support, is similar to a measure floated in late 2010 that was ultimately scrapped before lawmakers had a chance to vote on it.
Officials at NJ Advance Media, which provides content for NJ.com, The Star-Ledger and other affiliated newspaper, said 7 percent of total company revenue now comes from legal advertising. Of that amount, nearly 80 percent is private sources. The rest comes from public sources — municipal, county and state government agencies.
In 2015, 147 municipalities in the state that responded to a survey paid a total of $1,051,085 in legal ad costs, averaging $7,150 per town, according to figures from the state’s league of municipalities.
The league conducted the survey at the request of Christie.
The bill’s advocates say it will save taxpayers money by conforming to the times, and they pushed back against any suggestion that the bill goes beyond a desire to save municipalities money.
“He has never had a conversation on this (with me) in the negative,” Kean said.
“It’s basically money for the print media that is really a waste of money for the taxpayers,” Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union) said. “Post it online. No one’s finding it in like 2-point print in the back of the newspaper other than maybe the cat and the dog.”
But the state’s league of municipalities has only begun its technical review of the legislation and couldn’t provide public-private breakdowns of various legal notices for municipalities, nor could they say how fees would be established for municipalities that now get them from private legal ads.
George White, executive director of the New Jersey Press Association, said the bill would make residents comb through individual towns’ websites for notices rather than open the newspaper or search online at the NJPA’s website at www.njpublicnotices.com.
“While it may seem simple as a money-saving idea, the bill is a public policy fiasco. It’s not even clear governments would actually save money given the cyber-security, technical, administrative, and customer-service responsibilities each must take on,” White said.
“The bill destroys core principles of government transparency and openness,” he said. “Yet the Legislature here hasn’t studied the potential impact.”
In addition, many of the legals, including sheriff’s notices, are privately funded and not paid by taxpayers.
New Jersey would be the first state in the nation to allow government entities to self-post to government websites in lieu of newspapers, White said.
“Yes, it is absolutely curious the governor and legislature would believe that fast-tracking a bill like this in the middle of a two-year session is in any way reasonable or justifiable,” he said.
A printed record of a public notice is evidence a notice has not been altered and was published on the correct date, White said. Also, moving notices online could disenfranchise seniors and low-income residents.
Others shared White’s skepticism on the quick and quiet rollout of the proposal, arguing it proves the motive behind it is “not altruism,” state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex) said.
“Would it be right to think that there are some political forces behind it? Sure. Is it likely that maybe this is about politics and not the government? Yes,” he said.
“It is a bad bill. It is inappropriate and I am going to do everything I can to lobby against it,” state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) said.
A Christie spokesman, Brian Murray, declined to “comment on proposed or pending legislation until a final bill has been submitted” and the governor’s office has “ample time to review it.”