NJ.com- 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 government staff members cleared its first legislative hurdle Thursday.
The state Senate's budget committee voted 9-3 to approve the meaure despite objection from critics who say it appears to be a suspicious, fast-tracked deal between the Republican governor and Democratic leaders of the state Legislature.
The state Assembly's appropriations committee is scheduled to consider the bill at 1 p.m. If that panel also passes it, the measure could be voted on by the full Senate and Assembly on Monday -- only a week after it was introduced.
State law currently forbids any New Jersey governor from receiving compensation other than his or her $175,000 salary. But this is the third time Democratic leaders have taken up the bill to alter that law to permit the governor to make money on a book deal, in exchange for allowing raises for legislative staff members.
The latest 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 increase 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 "governors, presidents, and U.S. senators" to be able to write a book and get compensated for it."
State Sen. Pau Sarlo (D-Bergen), the committee's chairman, said he's "not a fan" of tying the book aspect in with the raises.
"But I'm being practical," Sarlo added. "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."
But state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth) said the Legislature would essentially be helping "the political elite" -- 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."
Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, noted that the bill comes even though Christie's approval rating is now at a record low.
Murray, who noted he was speaking as a "concerned citizen," 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 a message seeking comment on the measure.