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In program, students offer policy proposals directly to lawmakers

Salam Rida/Daily
Legislative associate state of michicigan Samanatha KHawkins didcusses possible iprovements to students' proposals at the state capitol on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2010. Buy this photo

BY BETHANY BIRON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published December 8, 2010

LANSING — In a meeting at the Capitol Building in Lansing, students got the chance to influence lawmakers when they presented policy proposals to a panel of state officials in the House Commission on Civic Engagement yesterday.

The students are part of the Michigan Student Caucus, a group created by the House Commission on Civic Engagement in 2001 to give students the opportunity to discuss issues and draft legislation to help solve the state’s problems. Participants receive feedback from legislators about the strengths and weaknesses of their proposals and about how to turn their suggested legislation into reality.

The caucus members are mostly students in an education course offered at the University's Ann Arbor and Flint campuses, but all college and high school students in the state are welcome to participate. Participants present ideas in several categories: economic development and community revitalization, arts and culture, human development and welfare, environment and health, justice and equity and community service.

Gary Weisserman, MSC co-facilitator and head of the five-year college preparatory school Oakland Early College, said the caucus is a way for students to address issues that they think are important in the state.

“In the broadest sense, it is a program that is designed to give students at Michigan a voice in what happens in Michigan,” Weisserman said.

Jay McDowell, president of the Howell Education Association and co-facilitator of MSC, said the program provides “a sense of empowerment” for students who often feel restricted in their university environments when discussing topics like government policy.

“The ability that you can look at a problem, you can analyze it, you can research it, you can put together a proposal and people will listen to you, that’s really what the platform allows,” McDowell said.

McDowell said MSC also provides an opportunity for out-of-state students to gain a better grasp of issues plaguing the state as a whole, rather than just the college towns of Ann Arbor and Flint.

“I think we’re also hoping for a better understanding of what the issues are in Michigan,” McDowell said. “Not everybody who’s in the caucus grew up in Michigan. They may have come here for college, and they don’t really know what’s going on outside their own college experience.”

Many students’ presentations yesterday focused on how to incorporate economic stability and job creation in a state facing budget and economic woes. Business senior Michael Averbook and LSA senior Sam Hartman proposed a new method of public transportation in the city of Detroit that establishes a separate lane for busing, with sophisticated traffic lights that would allow for quicker and more efficient transportation.

Averbook and Hartman also proposed an incentive in the form of a tax break for those who abstain from owning a car in order to encourage residents to use public transportation. They also hope that development of the program would help create more jobs in the Detroit area.

“We think this will decrease the purchasing of new cars somewhat and will encourage the use of public transportation,” Averbook said. “This will also increase jobs through running more bus routes and constructing new bus lanes on the roads.”

Samantha Harkins, staff member of the Michigan Municipal League and member of the House Commission on Civic Engagement, said the pair’s proposal is crucial to economic development in Detroit, especially since it is one of the few cities in the country without a public rail system.

“At municipal, we love public transportation” Harkins said. “Detroit is the largest metropolitan region in the country without some sort of public rail transit and that hurts us.”

Harkins advised that the pair focus especially on job development because it is a major issue among state legislators that transcends party lines and could lead to potential widespread support in the state legislature.

“The word jobs is like crack in Lansing,” Harkins said. “Everybody is talking about jobs on both sides of the aisle and everyone wants more jobs.”

According to McDowell, another important aspect of MSC is that it gives students like Averbrook and Hartman firsthand exposure to the processes and logistics involved in the legislative process at the state level.

“It’s easy to say that everyone should do x and y, that everyone should eat healthier, but to actually make a proposal that takes into account what exactly you want the legislation to do is not as easy,” McDowell said.

Jeff Kupperman, associate professor of education at the University’s Flint campus and co-facilitator of MSC, said the program gives legislators the opportunity to hear from a group of youth constituents — a voting group that is often underrepresented.

“Legislators often tell us (the program) is really special because the proposals are really well-researched, and they’re not just somebody saying it ought to be a law,” Kupperman said. “The caucus has spent weeks and months working on these proposals and deliberating on them.”

McDowell echoed his sentiments, saying that the caucus allows state representatives to learn about the problems that affect students, a perspective they don’t normally hear on the House and Senate floors.

“It provides a steady stream of ideas and concepts,” McDowell said. “It’s another constituency that’s not lobbyists, not corporations and not representatives that are giving ideas of what should be passed.”

In the past, MSC representatives submitted proposals that have influenced state law. Successful proposals include the designation of texting while driving as a primary offense rather than a secondary offense — a bill that was passed into law this March.

“We have had resolutions that have become law; some have started here and some have dovetailed with initiatives that were brought up by other constituencies,” Weisserman said.