Christie moves closer to being allowed a book deal

By Brent Johnson | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com
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on December 15, 2016

 Gov. Chris Christie speaks at the Statehouse in Trenton last month.

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TRENTON -- State lawmakers on Thursday began advancing a controversial bill that would loosen a state ethics law to permit Gov. Chris Christie to profit from a book deal while in office and also allow for millions of dollars in raises for hundreds of government staff members.

The state Senate's budget committee voted 9-3 to approve the measure over the objections of critics at a tense morning hearing.

Hours later, the state Assembly's appropriations committee voted 6-1 to move the bill forward.

The measure is now likely to be considered by the full Senate and Assembly on Monday -- only a week after it was quietly introduced.

State law currently forbids any New Jersey governor from receiving compensation other than his or her $175,000 salary. 

But the bill (S2851/A4430) appears to be part of an agreement between Christie, a Republican, and leaders of the Democratic-controlled state Legislature. It would alter the law to allow the governor to make money from a book deal, in exchange for staff raises. Similar proposals have fallen through twice in recent years. 

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen), the budget committee's chairman, said during Thursday's hearing that he's "not a fan" of tying the book aspect in with the raises but ended up voting for the legislation. 

"I'm being practical," Sarlo said. "There's a lot of good in this bill. If that is what's needed to make sure it gets bipartisan support and governor's signature? So be it."

The measure would allow each of the 120 members of the Legislature to increase the salary allotment for their staff members from $110,000 to $140,000. It would also hike the salary for the governor's cabinet members, county prosecutors, and judges across the state.

State Sen. Kevin O'Toole (R-Essex), a Christie ally, noted the last time legislative staff members received a raise was 2002.

"This bill is long overdue," O'Toole said. "I know it's not popular. But we've got to put a lifeline to these folks."

He added that it's a "fundamental" First Amendment right for governmental leaders to be "able to write a book and get compensated for it."

But state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said the Legislature would essentially be giving raises to "the political elite" on the backs of taxpayers -- just weeks after Christie signed a law raising the state gas tax by 23 cents a gallon to pay for transportation projects.

"I think it's a slap in the face of the residents of New Jersey," said Beck, who has been critical of Christie in recent months as she faces a tough re-election challenge next year.

"If you're looking for a big paycheck, you should stay in the private sector," she added. "This is about serving, about advocating, about representing the people."

It's unclear exactly how much money the plan would cost taxpayers. Because the measure is being fast-tracked, the state Office of Legislative Services has yet to prepare an estimate.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, noted that the bill arrives at the same time Christie's approval ratings have fallen to record lows as he begins the last year of his second and final term.

Murray -- who clarified he was testifying as a "concerned citizen" and not as a representative of his school -- said the U.S. has "entered a period of massive distrust of government" and polls show New Jersey voters feel Christie has "not been doing his job and doing it to advance his political ambition."

"This bill would put another stamp on that," Murray said. 

Christie's office has not returned multiple messages seeking comment on the measure.

The Legislature's top leaders, Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-Hudson), have also not returned messages.

The legislation moved forward on the same day Senate and Assembly committees approved another controversial measure: one that would dismantle a state law requiring governments, businesses, and individuals to publish legal notices in printed newspapers. The bill would give them the option to publish them online instead.

Christie's office says that measure would save businesses and taxpayers millions of dollars. Newspaper advocates argue that it would lead to hundreds of job losses and possibly the end of some publications.

Some lawmakers contend that the book deal bill and newspaper bill might be tied together as part of a larger, complex deal between Christie and Democrats.

Sarlo said he "can't really speak to that," cautioning that while he voted for the book deal measure, he is "not committed" to voting on the newspaper legislation.

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