Christie book deal could mean raises for 700 public officials, costing millions
TRENTON — More than 700 public officials may get raises, as part of proposed legislation that would permit Gov. Chris Christie to make money by writing a book while still in office.
State ethics laws restrict executive branch officials from profiting from a book, but a bill up for Senate and Assembly committee votes Thursday and final approval Monday would change that.
The proposal has drawn fire from all corners — not just for the Christie book deal provision, which has inspired a #NoBookDeal campaign by New Jersey 101.5 host Bill Spadea, but for provisions that would give certain government employees raises and slash a revenue source from the state's financially struggling newspapers.
The plan would hike the salaries of judges, Cabinet members and county officials, plus allocate $30,000 more a year to each lawmaker to pay aides. Nearly 575 judges, 86 county officers and 25 high-ranking government executives would get raises, and hundreds of legislative aides could benefit, depending how the extra cash is divided up.
Sen. Jennifer Beck, R-Monmouth, said she’s “a little stunned … and frankly disappointed” that the proposal is being advanced on the heels of raising the gas tax by about 23 cents a gallon, costing drivers an estimated $1.2 billion a year.
“They are also now going to award, because it’s all taxpayer-funded, raises to the political elite,” Beck said. “I think it’s dead wrong. I think it is absolutely misguided. The timing couldn’t be any worse.”
A fiscal estimate of the bill’s impact isn’t yet ready. But applying the same approach that was used to analyze a similar proposal from 2014, the impact on taxpayers would start at around $10 million and grow from there:
- In 2017, the cost would be around $10.5 million.
- In 2018, the cost would grow by around $4.5 million, to an annual total of $15 million.
- Beyond that, the impact would depend on the rate of inflation. If inflation is 2 percent, the impact in 2019 would increase around $3 million, to an annual total of $18 million and growing.
The 2014 analysis by the Office of Legislative Services presumed that the costs associated with fringe benefits would increase the cost of the raises themselves by 34 percent to 45 percent.
A lot of attention is being paid to a portion of the bill that wouldn’t directly cost taxpayers – changing New Jersey’s ethics law so that executive branch officials, such as the governor and Cabinet members, could be compensated while in office for books and published works.
“This is not a unique provision; it’s simply a First Amendment right that has been denied in New Jersey,” said Sen. Kevin O’Toole, R-Essex.
The judiciary’s 450 judges – which would be expanded by 20 positions, under a separate bill being considered Thursday – would get 3 percent raises in 2017 and 2018, followed by annual raises after that tied to the rate of inflation.
“So it will continue to go up year after year with the CPI. I mean, wouldn’t we all love that?” Beck said.
Judges last received a raise in 2009, and due to increased contributions for health benefits, their take-home is lower now than it was about a decade ago.
O’Toole said the increases are needed to attract and retain qualified judges. Beck dismissed such an assertion, saying she has 50 to 60 résumés from highly qualified attorneys interested in becoming a Superior Court judge at the current salary level.
“That’s not why they’re going into it, or you certainly hope they’re not,” Beck said. “Public service is about serving the public and the residents. It’s not about bringing home a big, huge paycheck. If you’re driven by your financial interests, really you should be staying in the private sector.”
Those raises would trigger pay hikes for almost 170 other public officials whose salaries are tied to what Superior Court judges are paid – 85 percent of those judges’ pay for administrative law and workers’ compensation judges and 65 percent for county officials such as surrogates, clerks and sheriffs.
County prosecutors would also get $5,000 annual raises in 2017 and 2018, bringing their pay to $175,000.
Cabinet officers and members of the Board of Public Utilities would be eligible to be paid $175,000, rather than $141,000, a prospect for $34,000 raises for 20 people. The state treasurer would be able to set any salary for the Division of Investment director, as a $200,000 cap would be erased.
The executive directors for the four caucuses in the Legislature – Senate and Assembly, Democratic and Republican – would be eligible to be paid $175,000, as well. Their salaries are now $141,000, although that isn’t written into state law.
Finally, the amount that lawmakers would be allocated to pay staffers would increase for the first time since 2002, from $110,000 to $140,000. These staffers generally work in the lawmakers’ district offices on constituent-services efforts.
The increased allocation for lawmakers’ staff salaries accounts for about half of the fiscal impact of the proposal.
Separate legislation being considered in tandem with the book deal/raises bill would allow municipalities to public legal notices on their own websites, rather than in newspapers.
Advocates for the bill say it’s a cost-saving measure.
Christie’s office says more than $80 million gets spent annually by taxpayers and businesses to publish legal ads.
It’s unclear how much of that comes from government, and therefore represents possible taxpayer savings. Christie spokesman Brian Murray said multiple state agencies sampled public notices in all daily newspapers in New Jersey over a 30-day period, then extrapolated the data over a 30-day period to reach the $80 million estimate.
Including weekly papers would boost the number significantly higher.
Those figures include public- and private-sector funded legal ads. Murray estimated more than $14 million was spent for completed foreclosures in the 12 months that ended in October.
In 2011, the New Jersey Press Association said local governments spend $8 million a year on legally required official notices, plus publish $12 million more that is reimbursed by private entities.
The association says 70 percent to 75 percent of legal notices are placed by private individuals or entities; governments that publish their own legal notices would have to public those notices for free.
The NJPA said that without revenues from public notice advertising, many small weekly newspapers would shut down and more than 200 to 300 jobs would be lost. It already maintains a free, searchable website of all public notices since 2002 and that legal-ad rates haven’t been raised since 1983.
The association offered a compromise plan Wednesday: Fees for government-paid legal ads would be cut in half, while those paid for by private entities would increase 5 percent in 2017, 4 percent in 2018 and 3 percent in 2019. Both rates would begin increasing to keep pace with inflation starting in 2020.
"This win-win compromise delivers real, guaranteed cost savings to local government instead of venturing into the unknown. It gives public notices the widest possible dissemination both in print and online, translatable for all the state’s residents, and with the transparency and accountability good public notice policies must maintain," the NJPA said in a memo to lawmakers.
The Christie administration opposes the suggested compromise.
Towns should have the option of self-publishing notices online if it saves them money, said Michael Darcy, executive director of the New Jersey State League of Municipalities.
“Municipalities that do a lot of legal notices, big communities, they could conceivably save some money,” Darcy said. “Small communities that do very few legal notices, it may not be a cost-effective option for them to obtain hardware and software and training to do this themselves. So it may not work for them.”