N.J. lawmakers are ‘chipping away’ at democratic norms in Trenton, advocates say

State police remove Sue Altman of New Jersey Working Families from a hearing. (NJ Spotlight)

State police remove Sue Altman of New Jersey Working Families from a hearing. (NJ Spotlight)

Legislation introduced at the very last second. Public hearings starting hours late. Lawmakers refusing to let audience members speak.

New Jersey advocacy groups say the public is increasingly shut out of the political process in Trenton, as state lawmakers continue “chipping away” at democratic norms that used to be standard practice in the statehouse.

“Members of our legislature are representatives accountable to the public,” said Jesse Burns, executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey. “They are guests in the people’s house — not the other way around.”

LWVNJ joined a dozen other organizations — including New Jersey Policy Perspective, Americans for Prosperity – New Jersey, and Environment New Jersey — in co-signing a letter to Democratic leaders in the state legislature calling for an end to the “ever-worsening, anti-democratic practices” in the statehouse.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-Middlesex, said in a statement that he would reach out to the advocacy groups to discuss the issue.

“While I am confident that the Legislature already provides sound access to advocates and the public, I am always open to hearing ideas on how we can improve,” he said.

A representative for Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, declined to comment.

The letter comes just days after New Jersey State Police troopers dragged Sue Altman, state director of New Jersey Working Families, out of a public hearing on tax incentives.

During a Friday press conference in Trenton, advocates ticked off a list of practices they said may have occurred sporadically in the past, but are now commonplace in the legislature.

They said advocacy groups have been denied meeting space in the statehouse, booted from the grounds for not having the proper permit, and refused access to the building to deliver petitions.

The letter also noted that lawmakers hold invite-only hearings (such as the one where Altman was ejected) with little public notice and limited audience space, often to discuss complex legislation.

Advocates also said that lawmakers frequently call on New Jersey State Police troopers, who provide security in the statehouse, to remove people who have exceeded their time limit to testify. Jeanne LoCicero, legal director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal should review NJSP practices and how the agency operates in the statehouse.

Sheila Reynertson, senior policy analyst at the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, said it’s time for lawmakers to improve the atmosphere in state government in order to increase public access.

“We’re just talking about going back to a time when we had an open-door policy without intimidation, without feeling like it’s not our house,” Reynertson said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.