Observing the Legislative Process: a class by itself

Sam Christoni

Observing the Legislative Process class meets with Governor Shumlin

Three inches of glass separated me from the serene and sprawling front lawn of the Vermont State House and the pandemonium unfolding within. It was my second day of the class, Observation of the Legislative Process, and the first day of the 2013 Legislative session.

“Access is key,” said lobbyist and guest speaker Jeanne Kennedy as she spoke with us. I struggled to tear my eyes away from the grand, imperial, emerald-green room that engulfed me. I was seated at a shiny, dark oak desk and perched in a luxuriously smooth, soft leather chair taking notes, both mentally, as I reveled in the sunlight beaming through the ten foot windows that circled the room, and on paper, as I listened to the speaker.

A professor and the longest standing Vermont Senator, William Doyle has been teaching Observation of the Legislative Process at Johnson State College for 13 years. “Observation of the Legislative Process is perhaps the only course in the nation that has an intensive two week study of the Legislature,” said Doyle. “This class opens a lot of doors… Relationships and getting to know people is half the battle of life. Sixty-two of our JSC students have run for the legislature and many of them have come through this two week course. It conspires to make people think in a broader term about how they fit into the picture. When they see other people in the process they say ‘Hey, I can do that job,’ but if you aren’t there, you can’t come to that conclusion.” This year the class had its biggest turnout yet.

Men in dark suits and silk ties, and women in classy skirt-and-blazer combos surrounded me as a green-clad page in his mid-forties led me down the aisle of the House of Representatives to my seat between Representatives Gage and Canfield. The Governor was about to give his second inaugural address to the House, Senate, honorary guests and Vermonters. A lively procession including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy, Lieutenant Governor Phil Scott, Congressman Peter Welch, Consul General of Canada to New England Patrick Binns, and several others were ushered in by Vermont National Guard members and took their seats before the event commenced.

Sitting on the floor of the house while the governor gave his address is an experience I won’t soon forget. “Access” I kept thinking as I surveyed the sea of representatives and senators that surrounded me. I was getting to experience history in the making as Gov. Shumlin revealed his initiatives for education in Vermont. I was shocked at just how much information I had soaked in, a mere two days into the class. I felt like an informed citizen as I listened to the governor and heard the reactions of the representatives flanking me. I thought to myself, “I know what he is talking about; I have informed opinions on this subject.”

Every day, Sen. Doyle had several different legislators who were more than happy to come speak with our class, even at a moment’s notice. And I say speak with -not to- our class, because that was exactly what they did. These Vermont legislators wanted to hear what we had to say and what questions we had to ask, rather than listen to themselves speak for an hour. This was refreshing and informational. Each day that we spent in the state house, we all made more connections and I found myself smiling or stopping to chat with a friendly face I had met earlier in my class experience.

One of those faces was Senator Jeanette White. When I met her, I instantly gravitated towards her vibrant energy and youthful demeanor. She had come to our class to discuss her roles on the Senate Judiciary Committee and as the Chair of the Government Operations Committee. One thing she spoke about really stuck with me: She’s working on a bill for freedom of speech in high school publications throughout the Vermont school system. As a journalist, my interest was instantly piqued and it reminded me of a discussion I had in my News Writing class the previous semester. Once again I thought to myself, “I can relate to this issue, I have an opinion on the matter.” Since then I have been interning with Senator White and helping her get in contact with administrators, staff and constituents who could support her bill. This is another example of an experience I never would have had if not for “access,” the magic password of the state house.

Our access to legislators in the State House also ranged from a Q & A with Governor Shumlin, to a talk with Speaker of the House Shap Smith where we got to know him personally, to a gathering with Senator Anthony Pollina as he spoke about higher education, to speaking with journalist Anne Galloway of Vermont Digger, to a spontaneous sit-down with Consul General of Canada to New England, Patrick Binns, where we spoke about oil pipelines.

The class also attended various committee meetings throughout the two weeks as well as caucus and joint committee hearings. I learned about everything from the cons of sustaining Vermont Yankee, to the immense need for temporary housing for Vermonters, to what exactly it is that the Commissioner of Forestry, Parks and Recreation does.

On the last day of class we were given the amazing opportunity of testifying before the Education Committee, which was surreal. The issues surrounding the funding of higher education are extremely interesting to me, not to mention the fact that these issues directly affect me. To get a chance for my voice to be heard by the very legislators who can shape the future of higher education was invaluable to me.

For my testimony, I told the senators that even though my parents are putting me through school I still understand the burden it places on them and the burden that my peers face. During my time at the state house I learned that funding for students at the Vermont State Colleges has decreased from 51 percent in 1980 to about 17 percent, where it is now. In my testimony I stated that was unacceptable and the senators echoed my opinion, citing the advantages when Vermont’s young people go to college and stay in the state.

Access. I now have an internship with Senator White for the remainder of the semester and am also seriously looking into being a lobbyist as well.