TOWER- Tenth-grader Billy Griffith can give you a pretty good explanation of how our state legislature works after spending four days at the Minnesota YMCA Youth in Government’s (YIG) Model Assembly event in St. Paul.
Besides learning the ins and outs of the current working space for the Minnesota legislature, he learned how to shepherd a bill through a legislative committee, how to handle the amendment process, how to introduce a bill on the floor of the House, then the Senate, and then onto the Governor’s desk for a signature. This was Griffith’s first time attending the conference, but he is now passionate about the workings of state government.
This is the second year Vermilion Country School has sent students to YIG. About 1,400 students participated in the event this year, according to Teacher/Advisor Clint Hughes, who oversees the program at VCS. A YIG alumni himself, Hughes said the program jumpstarts interest in government, civics, and current events. He noted that students who participate in the program are much more likely to register to vote, vote in an election, contact their elected officials, and work on community issues. The motto of the program is “Democracy must be learned by each generation,” and YIG puts students in the driver’s seat, letting them experience state government, lawmaking, and politics.
“The kids learn so much,” he said. “I am very proud of how they all did.”
“I saw kids working outside of their comfort zones and getting involved,” Hughes said. “They don’t have to want to go into politics for the program to make a lifelong impact.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like it,” Griffith said. “It was awesome.” Griffith sat on the House of Representative’s Transportation Committee. He noted that the Vermilion Country students brought a different perspective to the program from that of the majority of students who were from urban and suburban areas. Griffith’s bill would create a provisional driver’s license for 15-year olds, allowing them to drive to and from school if they live more than 20 miles away.
The experience also opened his eyes to life in the big city.
“This was my first time spending so much time in a big city,” he said, “and in a nice hotel.” The hotel the students stayed at was also hosting the Minnesota Vikings that week, and students got glimpses of the players as they were coming in and out.
Griffith was one of six students from Vermilion Country Charter School who participated in the event this year. The group of five senior high and one junior high students had all prepared in advance for the conference, but afterwards realized that next year they should spend more time preparing, learning all the rules, and developing better strategies.
“I need to learn more of the rules for the committee process,” said Bryce Soghigian. “You need to understand how the system works.”
Soghigian was fascinated by the inner workings, the actual politics, going on. He watched the students who were the best debaters, and saw how they used their knowledge of the rules and process to shepherd their bills to approval, as well as consigning other bills to defeat. Soghigian also participated in House floor debates, where he had to be recognized by the speaker and given permission by the bill author to speak.
Ashley Hill was a bit overwhelmed by the experience, everything from the setting, in the actual working rooms for the state legislature, to the prospect of getting up to introduce her bill.
“I’m really glad I did it,” she said. “But it was terrifying!”
Hill, who participated as a Senator, introduced a bill that would create flexible limits on debit/credit cards for minors. She had researched the issue, something that creates problems for teens who are working and managing their own finances. Her bill garnered wide support, passing through the committee with only one no vote, and then gaining approval on the floor of the Senate, and a signature from the Governor.
Orion Dagen-Goodsky had drafted a bill which would have made a college education at a public university or college free, but his bill died in committee when too many questions were raised on exactly which costs would be covered. But seeing the wide range of bills introduced was quite thought-provoking, he said. Chelsea Larson got her bill, which would have lowered the age for a conceal and carry permit, through committee with some amendments added, but then saw it die on the floor when the Lt. Governor expressed concerns over safety issues.
Eighth-grader Collin Soghigian participated in the intensive introductory program, which is focused on teaching the students the nuts and bolts of the legislative process, and preparing them for future years in YIG.
The program also included evening activities where students got to meet new friends from across the state.
All six students said they plan to attend YIG again next year. Four VCS students have signed up for a summer YIG program, where they will work on their leadership skills and help craft rules for the upcoming year’s session.
This year’s session was not held in the Capitol building, because of the renovation work underway. The program normally is located in the actual House and Senate Chambers.
VCS students earn social studies credit the first time they attend, since they are meeting state standards for civics and government. If they attend multiple years, Hughes said, the students will design elective projects that incorporate attendance at the program.
The four-day program costs about $400 per student, plus food costs. Hughes said the school had received a grant this year that helped cover most of the costs. Next year, he said, students will need to work on fundraising, because he is hoping to bring an even larger contingent of student-legislators to YIG 2017.