JACKSON HOLE, Wyo. — More than anything else in a three-hour session, the story told by Jim Keane, a Montana state representative, stirred the interest of his colleagues from 11 legislatures, gathered here for a meeting of the Council of State Governments-West.
They were discussing citizen alienation from politics — especially the apathy of young people when it comes to voting or taking part in community affairs. Keane said he had found a solution to at least part of the problem: challenge high school students to pass a bill.
At the beginning of each session of the Montana Legislature, Keane said, he solicits seven ideas from students at Butte High School for bills they would like to see passed. He picks one of them — considering the legislative climate and the prospects for success.
Then the class is required to get on the Internet and research a justification for the proposed legislation. Once that has been done, some members of the class come to testify at a legislative committee while others watch the proceedings. And then, like unpaid lobbyists, the students monitor the bill's progress, prodding it along as necessary.
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Last year, Keane said, the students suggested a bill to allow logging by the state in areas suffering from beetle infestation — an economic and environmental measure. "A lady from the logging association told me their testimony was the best prepared she had ever heard," he said. The bill moved through the Legislature, and the governor came to the high school for the signing ceremony. Now, a copy of the bill is in the school's trophy case — along with the statuary won by its athletic teams, a reminder to everyone of what political involvement can bring.
A reporter listening in on the session was struck by the sense that these legislators, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, express: that even though their districts are small in population and they are familiar figures locally, there is still a huge credibility problem for the governments of which they are a part.
"All of us are concerned about the loss of trust in government," said Marcus Oshiro, a Hawaii state representative, in launching the session. In many of these 11 Western states, participants said, government by ballot initiative has replaced the legislative process as the voters' favorite way to make laws.
They talked about how going door-to-door at election time, or encouraging e-mails during legislative sessions, can help bridge the gap between voters and elected officials. But nothing seems to eliminate the distrust.
Still, Keane was far from the only participant offering hopeful suggestions. Steve Urquhart, a Utah representative, described Politicopia, a new Web site he has developed where people can express their interest in any piece of legislation that has been introduced, voice their views on it, and hook up with others who are concerned about the same issue. "Anyone can use it to start a group discussion," Urquhart said. "I hope it will lead to conversation and consensus."
Caryl Zenker touted her organization, TVW, which provides gavel-to-gavel coverage of sessions of the Washington state Senate and House of Representatives to 1.75 million households via cable television — subsidized by commercial stations in her state. She urged other states to develop such networks.
And Oshiro himself promoted another device — the public access room in the Hawaii state capitol. It's a space close to the floor action and equipped with five computer stations, WiFi and phone lines, and staffed by two employees of the Legislature. Any citizen can come and get help in finding out what is happening on an issue and learn how to intervene with his or her views.
But barriers to communication remain. An Idaho legislator complained that the local superintendent of schools had barred him from visiting the high school, lest he politically indoctrinate the students.
And a teacher-legislator from that state said that too often, high schools teach students to distrust politics, because students quickly learn that the student councils they elect "are completely powerless" when it comes to setting policy.
The lesson, I think, is that young people respond when they are treated seriously — and when their involvement in politics produces results that are real. Come to think of it, adults want the same things.
Broder's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.