Legislative pages experience lawmaking first hand with mock hearing

Page School Teacher Leo O'Leary oversees the proceedings during the mock legislative hearing March 9th in the John Cherberg Building on the Capitol campus as young Senate and House chamber pages get a first-hand feel as to how state government op
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Page School Teacher Leo O'Leary oversees the proceedings during the mock legislative hearing March 9th in the John Cherberg Building on the Capitol campus as young Senate and House chamber pages get a first-hand feel as to how state government op
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Politics & Government

A shadow Legislature exists at state Capitol — and it’s run by teens

By Forrest Holt

fholt@thenewstribune.com

April 01, 2017 07:00 AM

At 8:30 a.m. on a recent morning, as some state lawmakers were still making their way to their state Capitol offices, 16-year-old Grace Martin was in a state Senate hearing room trying to persuade her peers to kill the death penalty.

The North Mason High School sophomore took a seat facing a half-moon committee table below wood-paneled walls. With three bangs of a gavel, the 13 members of the standing committee assembled to hear and vote on Martin’s proposal, Bill 3333.

“The Legislature finds that the death penalty is not a fair penalty and that it costs too much,” Martin began.

Welcome to Washington State Legislative Page School, part of the page program that each week of the regular legislative session offers a new class of two or three dozen students an up-close look at state government.

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Teens apply to the page program by submitting an application, and legislators pick the pages they want to sponsor. Each lawmaker can choose eight pages over a 105-day, odd-year session and four during a 60-day, even-year session.

The students, ages 14 to 16, come from across the state to work on the House and Senate floors, where they pass along notes and printed amendments to legislators. They also work in the Legislative Building’s gift shop or cafeteria. Wherever they are, they are easy to spot by their standard-issue jackets: maroon for Senate pages and black for the House.

Their week begins Sunday at a two-hour orientation where they and their parents learn to navigate the Capitol Campus, meet security staff and hear about their duties.

“There is a lot of quiet, nervous energy,” said Page School teacher Leo O’Leary. “But sometimes you can pick out the goofball at the beginning of the week.”

The pages also move into their host homes that day. Most hosts are families in Olympia-area neighborhoods who have provided page housing for years, House page supervisor Seth Coates said. The host families, which are background-checked by the Washington State Patrol, usually help the pages get to and from the Capitol. Pages pay their hosts $100 to $175 for the week of housing.

Pages typically work nine-hour days, from around 7:45 a.m. to about 5 p.m. They are paid $35 a day.

“On Monday they don’t really know what’s going on,” Coates said, “by Tuesday they’re getting their feet wet, but by Wednesday they think they know it all.”

It’s not all gophering and helping out at the gift shop. Two hours a day, pages are schooled in the branches of state government and how legislation is crafted. At the end of the week, they hold mock legislative hearings on bills they’ve proposed.

It was at a recent mock hearing that Martin, who was sponsored by Republican Rep. Dan Griffey of Allyn, defended her bill. She told her fellow pages that the legal costs of reaching a death penalty verdict would be better invested in police forces and that solitary confinement is a more ethical punishment.

Committee member Annalisa Mueller-Eberstein, a ninth-grader at the International Community School in Kirkland, pushed back.

“Isn’t solitary confinement an ethical issue as well?” the 15-year-old, sponsored by Rep. Roger Goodman, said.

Martin tried another tack: execution could negatively impact the victims’ or the perpetrators’ families, and it is irreversible in cases of wrongful conviction.

The committee voted against her bill.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson can relate. His House Bill 1935 to eliminate the death penalty met the same fate this session.

“Our committees tend to be pretty realistic in that only about a quarter of the bills pass,” O’Leary said.

Recently, he said, pages have proposed such bills as banning the use of electronics while driving and dictating which animals can be used in circus acts.

It is common for the pages to take their inspiration from floor debates, O’Leary said. Bills addressing hydroelectricity, carbon taxes and wolf populations — all issues brought before the Legislature this session — were heard in the same session as Martin’s death penalty bill.

Amy Rehwaldt, assistant page school teacher, said students have wanted to write bills tackling the major challenge before the real Legislature this year — how to change the way schools are funded to meet a state Supreme Court order.

But the pages realized they would not be able to thoroughly study all the changes needed in under a week. They were probably right: Lawmakers have been working on the issue for years and still don’t have agreement on a solution.

O’Leary said there is almost always a proposal to make schools start later in the day. The bill’s sponsors argue teenagers’ circadian rhythms prevent them from getting enough restful sleep before the alarm clock sounds.

“It rarely passes,” O’Leary said.

Miles Plucker, a 16-year-old sophomore at Walla Walla High School, proposed a school day of seven periods, only six of which would be required. Students could choose to take the earlier six, the later six, or all seven if they want to gain credit more quickly.

Despite some criticism of possible increases in school bus costs from the other pages, the bill passed.

Plucker said over his week at the Legislature, he learned a lot about the executive branch of the state government and made some friends he expects to have for the rest of his life. He may end up working on his family’s wheat farm, but he is open to other possibilities.

“I have thought about a future in politics,” Plucker said.

It would be a trajectory with precedent. Rep. Melanie Stambaugh got her start in the page program. She wore a black jacket while paging for Rep. Joyce McDonald of Puyallup. Stambaugh now sits next to McDonald in the House.

Stambaugh, R-Puyallup, described her page experience as “profound” and said it made her realize how people can affect government.

“My experience as a page planted the seed of me wanting to become a member (of the Legislature),” she said. “All the way through high school and college, it was always in the back of my mind.”

Rehwaldt, who previously was a social studies teacher in Brooklyn, New York, and now works as a substitute teacher between legislative sessions, says the page program may be her favorite job because she gets to see kids from vastly different backgrounds learn from each other.

“I wish it were all year,” she said. “Every week they come up with different questions and solutions.”

Forrest Holt: 360-943-7240

Be a page

Students between 14 and 16 years old are eligible to serve as pages.

▪ Applicants should mail a completed form to a legislator in their home district.

▪ Contact the Legislative Information Center Hotline at 800-562-6000 for a complete list of legislators, their mailing addresses and an application form.

▪ More information is available at bit.ly/senatepages and bit.ly/housepages.