4th graders make the laws now

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A vote was taken on the House floor last Friday on a bill proposing that every city and town in the state have a fully functioning homeless shelter open to all homeless people 24/7. It passed 24-17.

Alas, it was only a mock vote – and one taken by nine and ten year-olds – but the experience of getting to sit on the House floor, discuss a bill with the other “representatives” about the issue, and have their votes to be tallied up on the big electronic board wasn’t lost on the fourth graders from Glen Hills Elementary school.

And as Rhode Island lawmakers begin to propose their own bills for the upcoming judiciary session, these 44 students from Amy Gearing and Kathy McAuliffe’s fourth grade classes got to experience what goes on in the state house during an interactive tour. The tour was arranged by Representative Robert Lancia and his wife MaryAnn, who have done this since he was first elected as District 16’s representative in 2014.

During the discussion on the proposed homeless shelter bill, the debate ranged from how this would help Rhode Islanders to how Rhode Islanders would even pay for it. One “representative," Christopher Frias of Ms. McAuliffe's class, said that he looked up how much the average homeless shelter costs, which he found to be around $10 million, and decided that the total cost for each of the 39 cities and towns, $390 million, would be too much to put into the state budget.

Other students took a more compassionate approach to the bill, saying that shelters are especially helpful during the harsh winter months, especially after the recent storm, and for families who may need shelters if they want their children to be able to attend school.

After passage of the bill, Representative Lancia told the students he was impressed by their financial knowledge, especially because the House of Representatives has to ultimately decide if the state will be able to afford to put a bill into their budget. He also talked about out how helpful homeless shelters are, pointing out that the homeless shelter in Cranston is one of the biggest in the state.

The second proposed bill debated on the floor was about stores, restaurants, and youth sports being banned on Sundays.

Proponents of the bill said that it would allow parents to spend more time with their children, which was highly important to these fourth grade representatives.

Those arguing against the bill talked about emergency workers, about some parents needing to work on Sundays to provide for their families, and even about using a place like a restaurant to spend that precious family time on a Sunday. Christopher Frias once again impressed Representative Lancia with his research, as he likened the law to blue laws, saying that these don’t work because society still needs to function on Sundays. Lancia called Frias a “future lawmaker.”

The majority of the students said that the bill wouldn’t make sense, and it was shot down 37-7 against.

Before the students got to become representatives, they took a tour of the State House, which one of the tour guides, Rhode Island College Student Marissa Salvas, told them took nine years to build.

They were able to learn about Rhode Island’s history by looking at preserved documents and photos, such as the original charter.

Asking questions along the way, such as “how many state representatives are there?” or “will there be pizza?” the fourth graders were brought through the Roger Williams room, the State House Library, and up to the fourth floor to see the bubble-like roof from the inside.

Salvas was a bastion of knowledge for the students to learn from about how Rhode Island’s legislature works and what the people who work in the state house do.

She, along with Representative Lancia, explained how the senate proposes bills, which are then sent through to the house, and finally are decided on by the Governor. Lancia also explained that even if the Governor vetoes a bill, the House can ultimately make the final decision. He called House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello, another Cranston representative, “perhaps the most powerful elected official in Rhode Island.”

The kids perhaps had the most fun getting to sit on the House floor and debate proposed bills, asking Lancia if they could do some more, which they couldn’t because of time restrictions. The knowledge they gained from the tour and this interactive session provided an enhancement to what they already learn in history class at school, Lancia said after.

And after the tour, the Glen Hill students did get to have their long-awaited pizza lunch.

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