Instead of spending $300 million dollars to renovate one statehouse in Trenton. Let’s invest $210 million and build 21 of them. You can keep the extra $90 million.
Without a doubt, the statehouse in Trenton is a dump. It is embarrassing and falling apart. It is so bad that information about how to visit the statehouse is listed #17 on the State Legislature’s home page. That is two slots BELOW information about how to download Adobe Acrobat. Seriously go look. You know it is bad when even reporters, a group not known for their need of creature comforts and nice working environments, recognize that the New Jersey statehouse has long passed its expiration date. It is also clear that only an expired Governor with record low approval ratings could actually propose spending the massive amount of money needed to renovate it.
But maybe in today’s age of instant electronic communication, maybe it is the idea of a centralized capital itself has expired?
Recently, a number of authors including Ross Douthat in the New York Times and Matthew Yglesias at Vox have argued for breaking up and moving some Washington, DC based federal agencies to places like Detroit, Cleveland or Milwaukee. Is it so crazy to think about perhaps moving the State Department of Agriculture out of Trenton to I don’t know some place in New Jersey where there is actually agriculture?
However, in a particular New Jersey twist, how about instead of making the agencies move, we made the legislators move?
Instead of having a single state-of-the-art statehouse, we could create a statehouse in every county in New Jersey. The legislature would then move from county to country on a regular basis. Each county would get a one-time $10 million grant to design and redevelop a mixed-use facility that could house the legislature when it is in session. When the legislature is not in session, the facility could serve as a community center, collaborative office space, community college lecture hall, tech incubator space, high school model- congress practice facility, or anything else needed in the county.
By design, the facility would have to be wired with the latest communication and information technology so legislators would have instant access to whatever materials and documents they need when doing their legislating thing. It would also have to have meeting spaces big and small for caucusing, committee meetings and general kibitzing. It might need a food court or cafeteria, since all that work is best done on a full stomach.
The legislature would rotate between the different sites on a regular basis. Perhaps the legislature would go to three counties in one year, thus hitting all 21 counties once every 7 years. Perhaps, flip that around and visit 7 different counties each year and get to all 21 every 3 years. It doesn’t really matter, just make it predictable.
A moving legislature could do a number of interesting things. First, it might make the North vs. South battles a little less intense. Imagine Hudson County Democrats seeing how Cumberland County Republicans live and vice versa. Maybe they would understand each other a bit more. Second, all legislators would get to personally experience the roads, bridges, trains and traffic throughout the state. That has to be a good thing as they figure out future TTF funding. Third, it would give residents of every county the opportunity to meet with and interact with legislators on their home turf instead of the legislator’s home turf. If you think that doesn’t matter look at footage from Congressman Tom MacArthur’s recent town hall for evidence of the passion citizens have on their home stage. Fourth, reporters covering the legislature would be able to talk to real people on both sides of the Taylor Ham/Pork Roll debate. Fifth, it would require some thought and creativity about how to develop dual use public facilities, a process that could be helpful as we struggle to replace the vacant malls both mini and not that dot the state.
One of the things, perhaps the only thing, that all of the gubernatorial candidates agree on is that Trenton stinks. The candidates are simply giving voice to the notion that Trenton is distant and disconnected from the day-to-day lives of the people of New Jersey. All of the candidates claim they will go to Trenton and fix it. But maybe the solution isn’t only about bringing a different people to Trenton?
Maybe part of the solution is bringing a different Trenton to the people?