Report on the NJ Outdoor Alliance’s Caucus with Legislators in Trenton

by John Toth
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association January 2020 Newsletter)

People who want to have legislators support their cause write letters explaining their issue, call the legislator’s office or sometimes mail petitions to them with the signatures of many people. That’s all fine and good to get the attention of legislators. However, another very effective way in getting legislators to support your cause is to talk to them face-to-face so that they can better understand why it is so important to you. They can also ask questions to better understand your issue.

With this in mind, the New Jersey Outdoor Alliance (NJOA) held a caucus in Trenton in the Annex Building on December 16th so that our legislators could hear the concerns that we have about forestry issues, increased funding for our Marine Fisheries and hunting-related issues. We found that the best format to do this is to not only give legislators an invitation to this caucus, but to have an open door in one of the meeting rooms and let legislators come into it at their own leisure instead of providing them with specific times that they need to be there to meet us. This approach fits better into their hectic schedule. Refreshments are also available to them to have a quick bite and get ready for their next meeting. Members of the NJ DEP were also on hand to respond to any questions posed by the legislators. Tom Fote was also there representing the JCAA. Since I am also a Trustee of the NJOA, I represented the NJOA. Other members of the NJOA were there as well to interact with incoming legislators.

One of the issues that both the NJOA and JCAA have been pushing our legislators to support is increased funding for HOFNOD (Hooked on Fishing not on Drugs). It has a present budget of $200,000. We would like it to be increased to a total of $450,000 since we have found HOFNOD to be so helpful in getting youths involved in fishing, especially from disadvantaged neighborhoods. We talked to Senate President Sweeney to gain his support in posting this legislation in the Senate. (We later found out that he did it and it passed the Senate with a vote of 38 to 0). Now this bill has to be passed in the Assembly. Hopefully, it will be passed in waning days of the Lame Duck session of the legislature.

Having better funding for our Marine Fisheries has been an ongoing problem for a number of years. The staff in Marine Fisheries has to respond to a number of federal mandated studies for fishing management plans and has lacked the staff to do it among other related issues it has to deal with. In comparison to other states and the economic value the sport of fishing generates for our state, Marine Fisheries has been underfunded by our legislators. Both the JCAA and the NJOA have petitioned our legislators to increase funding for it over a number of years.

For example, New Jersey’s marine resources support some of the largest recreational and commercial fisheries on the U.S. Atlantic coast worth about 1.5 to 2 billion dollars. Yet, our state appropriates $3.668 million dollars to operate its Marine Fisheries compared to other states of up to almost $20 million that have less economic impact than New Jersey. We have a staff of 50 to run our Marine Fisheries, while Massachusetts has 150 and North Carolina has 300 staff members to operate its Marine Fisheries. I can give you more examples, but I think you get the picture about this funding problem.

I talked to Dan Hirshberg, who is the Chief of Staff for Assemblyman John DiMaio (23rd Legislative District) about this issue and he told me, “you have two minutes to do it, since I am going to another meeting.” I showed him a graph that displayed the funding other states provide for their marine fisheries and he told me to set up a meeting with members of NJ’s Fish & Wildlife and his office so that the Assemblyman John DiMaio could learn more about this issue and support it.

While it is effective to talk directly to legislators to gain their support for your cause, it is also very effective to talk to their Chief of Staff since they have the ear of their legislator. Legislators have many issues on their plates and do not have the time to do the necessary research to better understand the issue at hand. Their Chief of Staff does this type of research and passes it on to their legislator to assist their decision-making process.

When setting up the date of the caucus, the NJOA was unaware of the legislative calendar and just picked the date of December 16th. On this date, the legislature had voting sessions on very controversial issues at the same time and brought so many people to Trenton to lobby legislators for or against these issues and they were chanting so loudly that you could hear them in the building where the voting was taking place. Also, there were so many people in this building that I had difficulty just to walk out of it!

Unfortunately, while we had about 38 legislators attend a similar caucus in 2018, we only had about 14 legislators and staff at this caucus since legislators had their hands full dealing with the hearings and meetings required to hear and vote on these three controversial issues. Hopefully, when we hold our caucus in 2020, we have it at a more peaceful time without the disrupting protests.

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