A battle over how to inform the public: Newspapers or government websites?

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Gov. Christie's office said taxpayers and businesses paid more than $80 million a year to publish legal notices in newspapers. The New Jersey Press Association puts the figure at around $20 million - and says two-thirds of the cost is not borne by taxpayers.

Gov. Christie is employing statistics disputed by the state's press association to push a bill that would scrap a requirement to publish legal notices in newspapers.

Legislative committees on Thursday are expected to consider the bill, which was introduced Monday and is being promoted as a cost-saving measure.

In an email Tuesday night, the governor's office said taxpayers and businesses paid more than $80 million a year to publish notices, citing an "internal tally of a sampling for daily newspapers" in the state.

But the New Jersey Press Association puts the figure at around $20 million - and says two-thirds of the cost is not borne by taxpayers. The notices announce public hearings, foreclosures, advertisements for bids, financial reports, ordinances, and other government activities.

In 2011, when a similar measure was before the Legislature, supporters of ending the publication requirement said the cost of the legal ads was $70 million.

"They've bumped the old lie by $10 million," said George White, executive director of the association. "The irony is, the newspapers are still forced to charge the same rates they've been forced to charge since 1983," based on a state law that White said sets New Jersey apart from other states.

Asked about the $80 million figure, Christie spokesman Brian Murray did not provide specifics Wednesday. He said that the "internal tally" did not include weekly newspapers - making the cost even higher.

The governor's office sent out another email Wednesday, highlighting the costs of publishing notices for foreclosures.

The bill would allow for legal notices to be published on government notice websites rather than in newspapers.

"It's basically an anachronism," said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R., Union), one of the bill's sponsors. "No one really reads that anymore."

Every other state, however, continues to require printed notices as the legal fulfillment of public-notice requirements, according to White. He said nine states have "modernized their statutes" for the digital age, requiring digital uploading of the printed notices.

"But not one has given governments permission to do it themselves - on their own website," White said.

The press association already maintains a searchable website, njpublicnotices.com, of notices that have been published in New Jersey newspapers.

If notices were online only, they could be changed, the association says. The independent operation of newspapers, it says, provides "essential credibility" to the notification process.

Democratic opponents have accused Christie of seeking to weaken the state's press. Assemblyman John S. Wisniewski (D., Middlesex), a 2017 gubernatorial candidate and one of two lawmakers who led the legislative investigation into the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal, referred to the bill as the embattled governor's "revenge" against newspapers.

Murray, Christie's spokesman, noted that the bill was first introduced in 2010. "It had nothing to do with the press then and nothing to do with them now," he said, dismissing Wisniewski and Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg - the other Democrat who led the bridge investigation - as "tax-and-spend liberals."

The change would mean less revenue for newspapers, with a potential 200 to 300 jobs lost, according to the press association. Weekly newspapers - some of which receive 40 percent to 50 percent of their revenue from legal notices, White said - could close.

The change wouldn't necessarily be a boon for municipalities, the association says, because creating secure, searchable websites would add to costs.

Some municipalities might choose to continue publishing notices in newspapers - at least for the time being, said Mike Cerra, assistant executive director of the League of Municipalities, which supports the legislation.

"I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that there's going to be a rush to do this," Cerra said.

It's unclear exactly how much municipalities pay to publish notices. A survey recently conducted by the League found that 147 municipalities paid a total of $1.05 million to publish notices in 2015. There are 565 municipalities in New Jersey.

"It's difficult, really, to extrapolate beyond that," Cerra said. He said the league conducted the survey because "the governor's office asked us, a few weeks ago. They wanted to verify that we supported the concept."

Bramnick said he could not comment on why the bill - which he originally sponsored six years ago - was moving forward now, directing questions to Democratic leadership.

A spokesman for Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (D., Hudson), who is also a sponsor of the bill, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) declined comment.

mhanna@phillynews.com

856-779-3232

@maddiehanna

www.philly.com/christiechronicles

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