Thoughts on Two Assembly Marathons

What a difference a few days make. I covered two New Jersey State Assembly sessions, live tweeting from each for Blue Jersey from the back of the chamber.

The first, last Thursday, was the session where several Democrats Christiecrats joined the Republican voting bloc to strip state workers of collective bargaining rights and increase their health premiums. That session was punctuated by noisy crowds outside the State House, and the gallery was filled with well-behaved union supporters. By contrast, today’s session, where the members voted on the Democratic budget and the millionaires’ tax, played to a nearly empty gallery with voting along party lines. Sadly today’s session also took place in the absence of NJN television crews.

After sitting behind the GOP assemblymen (and yes, most of them are white men), zealously protecting my claim to an electrical outlet for my laptop, for twelve hours on Thursday and eight hours tonight, I got a feel for how this body works, or at least presents itself to the public.

First, the substantive stuff. The millionaires’ tax and its companion school funding bill passed along party lines and will undoubtedly be vetoed by our pro-business, anti-middle class, mean-spirited governor. The Democrats’ budget also passed, but its fate is less clear. Certainly, the governor will not exhibit the bipartisan spirit he touted when the bill to eliminate collective bargaining and increase workers’ health premiums passed last week. He may veto the bill outright; he may conditionally veto the bill, sending it back to the legislature; or he may line item veto those provisions he doesn’t like, such as health care for women.

In contrast to the Republican side, the Democrats look more like New Jersey, with the diversity that makes this state great. You can hear the mellifluous oratory of an Orthodox Jew, the stereotypical Joisey voices of Irish and Italian men and women, the punctuated voice of an Asian Indian member, the hint of a Spanish accent in a Cuban-American legislator, and the urban parlance of African-American men and women.

I wonder, though, how much of this is unnecessary theater. I don’t think anyone’s mind was changed by the floor speeches, and without NJN’s cameras there, the assembly members were certainly not playing to a television audience.

I sat behind the GOP members. Remember, that’s where the power (outlet) is, so I was able to observe their interactions more closely than those of the Democrats. As the hours droned on, many of the members were talking to each other, surfing the web, texting on their BlackBerrys, or were simply not in the room. In fact, when the vote came up on the budget, it looked like several members were caught off guard and had to scramble back into the room to vote. Many of their votes were electronically cast by staffers or by other members.

There are eighty Assembly members. I think many of them, on both sides of the aisle, are extremely bright. But there are also some, on both sides of the aisle, who are a few votes short of a quorum. And from an old geezer’s point of view, it seems like all of their aides are barely old enough to drive. I’m also amazed how friendly they seem to be with each other even though they are at each other’s’ throats during the sessions.

One final thought: With the demise of NJN and the cutbacks in traditional print journalism, it will be more difficult for citizens to follow the activities in Trenton. Perhaps this is how Governor Christie, who eschews transparency, wants it. So it’s up to us – bloggers and other alternative media – to fill in that gap. Michael Aron and his colleagues had big shoes to fill. Wish us luck.

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