by Bruce Feustel
as they do with their constituents. I recently had a chance to participate in three of these discussions with the Sheridan area state legislators as part of a Kettering Foundation-funded project on improving the bond between legislators and citizens.
The key partner for the legislators in the high school civics/government class discussions was the teacher, Tyson Emborg. An enthusiastic instructor, he appreciates the opportunity to get the legislative delegation in front of his students. This year, the delegation visited on the last day of classes, which seemed like a recipe for disaster. But Mr. Emborg prepped the students in advance and the discussion was lively from bell to bell.
Senator John Schiffer and Representatives Jon Botten, Rosie Berger and John Patton introduced themselves at the beginning of the class, and the teacher called on students for their questions. Many of the students focused on the merit-based Wyoming Hathaway scholarship program, which provides significant funding for Wyoming students to go to in-state schools. The questions related to curriculum requirements, in-state school and other eligibility criteria, and funding associated with this recently-established program. Some students wanted more flexibility in the program to obtain award based on expertise in marketable areas like photography or welding. The legislators would periodically focus the students by asking "what do you think?". At one point, Sen. Schiffer and one of the students brainstormed ways to open the requirements while still maintaining standards of proficiency.
The discussion benefitted from the lack of filters--questions ranged from legislators' personal opinions on gay marriage, balancing energy and environmental concerns, and shooting wolves. Why does legislation need to pass through two houses of the legislature, they wanted to know. What issues does Representative Botten face in his dual roles of legislator and a municipal judge? How does the death penalty apply in a particular fact situation?
The team approach allowed the legislators to answer the questions they felt most knowledgeable about, and showed the students the wide variety of backgrounds of citizen legislators. This delegation included a rancher, an attorney and two business operators. It gave the students a sense of the variety of personalities and approaches that lawmakers bring to the state capital. It also helped to create a link with the school as a whole as they toured the building during a break and talked with principal Dirleen Wheeler over lunch. Finally, the legislator team approach allowed the delegation to reflect together on what the students were saying and thinking and what that meant for next year's session in Cheyenne.