SG lobbying efforts spur N. J. legislation, student activism

Brian Block, chair of SG’s Legal and Governmental Affairs committee, testifies for A-3417, a bill the College’s lobbying efforts helped introduce to the state legislature. (Photo courtesy of Brian Block)

Her words spoke volumes, but she wasn’t there to say them.

Instead, a sign bearing her message stood where she might have. On the path beside the Brower Student Center, her words braved the rainy mid-April afternoon.

“I’d like to say to the state, ‘Thanks for raising tuition to the point of making it impossible to attend a four-year university,’” the sign read. “I know that even after death, the only thing that will remain are my student loans.”

Signs dotted the pathway displaying stories similar to that of the former College junior, who had dropped out after failing to scrape together enough money to pay for another semester.

On Wednesday, April 13, the signs represented part of the Student Government Legal and Governmental Affairs (L&G) committee’s efforts to herald the first Statewide Day of Action for Public Higher Education.

“(We’re doing this) to raise awareness of the cuts that are happening to higher education and to really make students’ voices heard,” said L&G chair Brian Block, senior political science major. “Higher education is not seen as a priority in the Garden State as per 14 years of cuts or flat-lining … so we’re trying to make an impact.”

L&G launched a comprehensive lobbying campaign last semester to urge New Jersey legislators to “prioritize higher education,” according to Block. Since then, the committee has met with 26 legislators. Its nine members have also helped found the New Jersey United Students (NJUS) activist coalition and push two bills through the legislature.

L&G was also partially responsible for the Day of Action. The statewide event, held to raise awareness about cuts in higher education funding, was sponsored by NJUS.

“(At) the first meeting (NJUS) had, we kind of had this idea of what to do … We decided that day that April 13 would be our day, but it culminated in various conference calls and lobbying actions,” Block said.

NJUS was established in February as a “coalition of interested student groups” from 11 public colleges and universities in New Jersey, including the College. All groups expressed the desire to further their schools’ lobbying efforts.

With help from a summit held at the College in March, all NJUS member schools adopted the College’s lobbying model.

“We had a summit here because we’re the most experienced at lobbying,” Block said. “We taught … how to lobby, how to use technology to your advantage, how to portray yourself, how to get your message across, everything you need to know to be a good student lobbyist.”

L&G’s lobbying strategy has served it well over the past few months, though Block maintains that the model is a work in progress.

“We’re still tailoring and developing to this day,” he said.

The committee set aside several months to prepare for its first lobbying meeting and then hit the ground running.

“First semester was really plan-
ning — planning our strategy, tailoring what we need to do, and the first meeting … was in December,” Block said. “Second semester was all lobbying, all the time — testimony and budget testimony, legislative meetings … It’s gotten to the point where sometimes it’s four per week.”

L&G bases its strategy around the “Tell It Like It Is” campaign, which it has employed to collect stories such as the one featured during the Day of Action.

The committee sifts through these stories to find quotes that will stick with senators. According to Block, L&G uses a mixture of student stories and statistics to advocate for a 5 percent increase in aid to public colleges in New Jersey.

“We sell ourselves as much as we sell facts and figures,” Block said.

The committee has employed the model at meetings with 26 legislators since Decem-ber. L&G’s final legis-lative meeting, scheduled for Thursday, April 28, will bring that number to 28 by semester’s end.

“A lot of the (legislators) are very enthusiastic about higher education,” Block said. “A lot of times they’re very impressed … with our breadth of knowledge.”

L&G has garnered more than just praise for its lobbying efforts, however. Two bills might be cycling through the legislative process a little faster due to a push by L&G members.

L&G played a crucial part in the introduction of S-2830, which allows for a three-year extension of the public-private partnership bill’s Sunset Clause. The clause grants public colleges access to funds in order to undertake large-scale building projects such as the College’s Campus Town project.

“We (had) been pushing it … when we met with Senate President (Stephen) Sweeney, who is an original supporter … It was introduced a week after we met with him,” Block said. “It should speed through, especially after the budget hearings that are going on right now.”

According to Block, the extension would give colleges until February 2015 to submit their projects if it is passed.

He was pleased with the bill’s introduction, particularly because it showed a step toward accomplishing goals laid out by former N. J. Gov. Tom Kean in his Higher Education Task Force report.

“(S-2830 is) probably the first proposal to come out of the Higher Education Task Force report that’s been put into bill form at all, and it’s kind of through us that that happened,” Block said.

L&G was also instrumental in pushing A-3417, a bill that would eliminate tax on commuter parking passes at certain state institutions of higher education, including the College.

Much of L&G’s work takes place quietly. Sometimes, brief legislative meetings and modest letter-signing tables in the student center seem to go unnoticed. Block hopes to change this.

“(We want) to make students aware that they have a team of students lobbying on their behalf,” he said. “To make students aware that we’re working for them is really our first goal.”

Emily Brill can be reached at brill3@tcnj.edu.