Students find their legislative voice

9 mins read

FARMINGTON – It’s not easy getting a bill made into law.

That’s what seventh- and eighth-grade students from three area schools found out this morning in the 9th Annual Youth Summit’s introduction to the legislative process. More than 60 students from Jay, Mt. Blue and Rangeley joined state legislators and advocates in the Health Community Coalition’s Voice of our Youth day-long workshop held in the Bass Room at Franklin Memorial Hospital.

The program’s coordinator, Nicole Ditata, told the group that the legislative process allows them to be “wonderful agents of change.” Rep. Tom Saviello, U-Wilton, explained the circuitous route a bill goes through before becoming law.

Rangeley Lakes Regional School students Madison St. Marie and Olivia Decelles spent the day, as did 60 more students from area schools, at the 9th Annual Youth Summit discussing how bills become law.

During last session there were 2,400 bills introduced, he said, that may or may not have gone through the various committees, public hearings, work sessions, debate, all in a back and forth between the state’s House of Representatives, the Senate, and possibly ending up on the governor’s desk.

In answer to a question about how a representative may vote when a bill reaches the floor, Saviello said he votes the way the majority of his constituents want him to vote. As an example, he said the seat belt law which narrowly passed last year that requires everyone to buckle up got many people emailing him to vote no, so he voted against the bill.

Another student wanted to know what he does if no one emails him about how to vote.

Tori Fernandez of New Vineyard, testified in a mock legislative hearing at the Youth Summit held today.

“I try to sort it out. If I don’t hear anything, I vote for what I think is right. But my first goal is to find my constituents’ vote, so I know how to vote,” he said. That’s why he said it’s important for people to voice their opinions to their legislative representatives.

Two bills to be presented to the Legislature in its next session – a resolve to increase physical education for elementary school students and a requirement that chain restaurants label their menus to include nutritional information such as a calorie disclosure, were discussed in breakout sessions with the students by the bills’ advocates.

Becky Smith, executive director of the Health Policy Partners, a public health advocacy group that will be presenting a bill in January to get chain restaurants defined as those restaurants with 20 or more outlets nationwide, to post calorie information next to the food item price. California already has a similar measure in place.

“We think it’s important for consumers to see what they’re eating,” Smith said. She made her pitch to students that Maine spends $357 million on obesity-related diseases. “People are eating out in chain restaurants much more and don’t realize how many calories they’re consuming,” she said.

Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, was asked by Smith to offer up some argument against the menu labeling bill.

“Is it really up to the government to “spoon feed” us in terms of what’s good for us or not? Is it going to cost more for the businesses? And, if it does, aren’t they just going to pass it on to the consumer?” Knight asked.

Smith countered with the idea that chain restaurants also do business in California where menu labeling is required, so there wouldn’t be an increase in cost. The idea that people will be discouraged from going to restaurants because of the calorie count may spark better nutrition choices at restaurants. As an example, she said Burger King started offering healthy apple slices and Starbucks, a skim latte, as alternatives to some of the other high caloric choices.

“We want to protect people’s health,” Smith said. She also noted the so-called bloomin’ onion, a whole onion fried up in fat and sold at the fairs and some restaurants has a whopping 3,000 calories. The question is would people still order a bloomin’ onion if they knew it has as many calories as is recommended for the average adult female over a day and a half period.

The second bill discussed seeks to increase the amount of time for kindergarten through eighth-grade students receive physical education to a minimum of 150 minutes per week. Currently, there is no minimum amount of exercise required in school. Proponents of the bill point to climbing obesity rates and a variety of healthy reasons in favor of more exercise in school.

Students then got together and learned how to write testimonies on either proposed bill to present in a mock legislative hearing before the group and state Rep. Saviello,  Rep. Janet Mills D-Farmington, and state Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington.

Mt. Blue Middle School students Hannah Senecal and Sarita Crandall testified that they support an increase in PE class time.

“More PE class is essential to good health,” they argued. “More exercise will help keep the weight down. It’s only 150 minutes a week for exercising.” Gooley asked if students who participate in after school sports be exempt from the extra PE time. “No,” came the answer, “everyone should exercise.” 

All of the testimonies on the extra gym time proposal were for it. On the bill to require menu labeling, most thought it was a good idea, but one student argued against it.

Tori Fernandez said she was against the menu labeling because of someone she knows who is suffering from anorexia and that pointing out calories would make it hard for her to eat out. Saviello offered that maybe having two menus, one with calorie info if asked for, would be the right solution.

Noah LePage and Richie Storer argued for the labeling because “according to research, during the past two decades, the number of people eating at restaurants has doubled,” LePage said. “Eating too much is a cause of obesity. Labeling will help manage your caloric intake.”

Mills asked if everything, even the salad dressing at a salad bar should be labeled. Storer said “everything should be labeled so customers can compare calories.”

Saviello said the menu labeling requirement will cost more and asked if they would be willing to pay more.

“There may be an extra cost of reprinting the menus, but we have to take that risk. Our economy may be failing, but our health doesn’t have to,” LePage said. 

Gooley asked if menu labeling would be telling people what to eat.

“If people use their common sense; it’s not telling them what to eat, it’s telling them what they’re eating,” LePage argued.

“You should run for political office,” Gooley quipped.

As the students filed out to their buses, Ditata said the students, who all seemed comfortable speaking before a large audience, did a great job.

“I thought the students put a lot of thought and research into their testimonies. I was really impressed,” she said.

State Rep. Janet Mills, D-Farmington, state Sen. Walter Gooley, R-Farmington and state Rep. Tom Saviello, U-Wilton, listen to students testify at the mock legislative hearing held today.





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