Watts: Legislative Classroom

May 21, 2019

This spring I watched the Vermont Legislature through the eyes of twenty-five college students. Each week students traveled to the state’s capitol to watch and write about how bills become law – or not.

Students pushed their way into the committee rooms, closely following four pieces of legislation, as part of a class in media and politics. One of the issues, Vermont’s comprehensive plastic ban, sailed through. Others remain undecided like the law to raise the minimum wage.

Making laws is like making sausages the saying goes, its messy and complicated. And the students saw that first hand. But their biggest take away, what they wrote and talked about week after week, was how open and accessible Vermont’s legislature is. How welcome and friendly legislators are. And how much seems to be debated right out in the open.

Vermont’s citizens legislature is one of the last of its kind in the country. Legislators are part-time and barely paid. The democrats, republicans and progressives share the SAME staff – highly unusual in this hyper-partisan time. Visitors to the building pass no armed guard or metal detector. Turn right and you're in the Lt. Governor’s office. Turn left and it’s the Senate President. Upstairs is the Governor’s Office.

Intimidated at first, students learned to just push open the giant wooden doors of the committee rooms, and find a seat, sometimes stuffed in behind the committee chair. Legislators welcomed and recognized them. At least three times students were invited to testify on issues from gun control to climate change. Two of the students became friendly with the Lt. Governor and ended up driving him around. One might work on his vegetable farm this summer.

Yes, there are plenty of meetings behind closed doors and decisions made out of the public eye. But every legislator is easy to find, either in between committee rooms or in the communal dining room. And so much of the debate unfolds right across those committee tables. These students not only got a front-row seat – many of them got to participate.

And for many of them, this was the best class-room they ever had.