- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) - New Jersey lawmakers pushing a bill that would clear the way for Gov. Chris Christie to profit from a book deal before he leaves office and at the same time raise salaries for legislative staffers say the changes are necessary and have long been in the works. But critics say the measure being fast-tracked through the Legislature is “unseemly.”

In a Statehouse where laws can sometimes take years to be approved, committee hearings are planned for Thursday on the legislation introduced Monday, and lawmakers say it is likely to get a vote in the final session of the year next Monday.

The bill changes a law that prohibits the governor from drawing any income beyond his $175,000 per year salary. The legislation also includes an increase of $30,000 to $140,000 in appropriations for each of the state’s 120 lawmakers to spend on staff.

It’s an apparent trade-off that to some legislators looks like a tit-for-tat in which Christie, a high-profile Republican who ran for president, appeared on the late-night TV circuit, advised President-elect Donald Trump and appeared at the center of the 2013 George Washington Bridge scandal, is free to pursue a book deal.

“That’s exactly what it looks like. That’s what makes it so unseemly,” said Democratic state Sen. Ray Lesniak, who opposes the legislation. “It’s bad enough he’s been out campaigning. He’s been an absentee governor. … My staff needs a raise but not for a governor who’s been out of state.”

Democratic Assemblyman Gary Schaer sponsored the bill in the lower house and said it’s important for the public to have lawmakers who can afford “well-qualified and well-educated” staff. But he said the political realities of legislating meant the Democrat-led Legislature had to couple the staff raise with relaxing the salary constrictions on Christie.

“Clearly politics is what politics is. In order to get the governor’s support clearly he wants something back for himself.” Schaer said. “Am I happy about the deal? No. But I’m a political realist.”

Messages left with the governor’s office were not immediately returned.

Democratic Assemblyman John Burzichelli, who also co-sponsored the bill, said money for staff hasn’t increased since 2002. He said the raises are warranted and that just because Christie writes a book doesn’t mean it will sell.

The legislation also would allow Christie to raise his department heads’ salaries from $141,000 to as much as $175,000.

Judges would get 3 percent raises in 2017 and 2018, and the state’s county prosecutors - appointed by Christie - also would get pay increases. They currently make $165,000, but would see that go up to $175,000 by 2018.

The boost in judges’ salaries led Democratic state Sen. Nicholas Scutari to sponsor the bill in the Senate. As chairman of the judiciary committee, he said he has seen good judges leave the bench for private practice because the salaries weren’t high enough.

“Nothing could be more important,” he said. “What are we doing if not running government well?”

Lawmakers who support the measure say the issue has been talked about for years and that it’s nothing new. But experts point out that the speedy clip at which lawmakers are moving the bill could hurt the public’s trust. There’s been no fiscal estimate of what the changes would cost the public, for example.

Matthew Hale, associate political science professor at Seton Hall University, said that on balance, paying staff and judges more money would probably attract better qualified candidates, but the fact the bill is moving just before the holidays hurts the lawmakers’ case.

“That gives the appearance of sneakiness,” he said.

Scutari said he doesn’t buy that reasoning.

“I don’t see it that way,” he said. “The people are paying attention. This is the information age. These issues have been around for years.”

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