For five hours on Tuesday, February 2, the Statehouse door was held wide open.
The state’s Assembly leadership had sent out a bipartisan invitation for the public to speak its mind about state government. More than 140 people showed up.
They ranged from the familiar lobbyists in dark suits to newcomers in blue jeans and boots, one by one pitching everything from gay marriage to condo association rights.
The mayor of Hamilton Township spoke out against state housing mandates, right next to others who read from personal stories of home foreclosures.
A man from Cherry Hill came with a list of $6 billion in potential savings for the state’s strapped budget, as legislators dutifully took notes. Another had an idea for recycling windshield glass.
To handle the numbers, the hearing was split into three committee rooms of the Statehouse Annex. Still, the last of the testimony didn’t end until it was dark outside on West State Street.
Here is a sampling of three who said their piece, each in three minutes or less.
Thomas Ng, 21, Oradell
Among the youngest speakers on Tuesday, Thomas Ng is no rookie to the Statehouse.
Ng is student government president at Ramapo College, where he is now a senior, and last year he went before the same Assembly to press for stable higher-education funding.
In the same black suit – “I only have so many,” he said – Ng came back with the state of New Jersey’s finances now worse. The affable grandchild of Chinese immigrants waited for more than two hours for his turn.
When his name was finally called, Ng testified to New Jersey’s notorious “brain drain” of students leaving for out-of-state colleges, and the mounting debt for many who stay.
“I am tired of watching my bright, capable and motivated classmates needing to pay off student loans for decades,” he told the legislators.
Studying to be a high school social studies teacher, Ng said he knew enough about economics and government that the state was in a tough bind. “But these are state schools and should be kept affordable,” he said.
Valerie Bivins, 54, Bordentown
Valerie Bivins said it started with talk that the state’s budget crisis could hurt the Burlington County program where she’s taught troubled teen girls for 26 years.
“I’m worried about the kids,” she said. “These girls will fall through the cracks even more than they have already.”
So, she decided to make her first-ever trip to the Statehouse for the rare open mic, and with her husband Virgil in tow, Bivins was at the witness table before some of the state’s most powerful politicians.
“It’s quite a different experience, with everyone looking at you,” she said after her three minutes in the spotlight. “Next time I’ll come better prepared.”
Still, she found the legislators polite and respectful to a novice like herself, especially Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, and Bivins said the experience left her newly optimistic that New Jersey would weather the difficult economy.
‘It will be a tough time, but we’ll get through it,” she said.
Henning Kristensen, 73, East Brunswick
Henning Kristensen has been talking about the electric cars for well more than a decade, preaching the benefits to anyone who will listen.
A self-proclaimed “half-ass mechanic,” Kristensen said his idea is for natural gas to run generators that will power the cars. He said his native Denmark has already made great strides, and he doesn’t understand why the United States is so far behind.
‘That’s why I’m here, pushing, pushing,” he said following his testimony, standing beneath the building lobby’s vaulted ceiling.
His wife, Barbara, rolled her eyes, anxious to get back to their Middlesex County home. “You don’t know how many things he talks about,” she said.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy, but no,” Kristensen continued.
“Too expensive? They say it’s too expensive?” he said. “No, ignorance is too expensive.”