Thursday, June 21, 2018
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Finding their voice

Legislative camp heightens interest for two Gothenburg High students

Ask any Nebraska high school student about the Keystone XL Pipeline and they’ve likely caught a blip or two about it in the news.

Maybe they’ve overheard adults discussing it, taking sides for the pros or the cons.

But it’s likely most Nebraska high schoolers don’t have a grasp of the economic impact such a project might have through newly created jobs or the environmental risk an unforeseen leak could cause.

Two Gothenburg High School juniors know all about the pipeline proposal, though, and the Nebraska Legislature’s approach to dealing with it.

Rachel Rice and Betsy Potter got up-close and personal with the pipeline and the unicameral’s legislative bill to deny construction across the state.

LB8 was one of 10 bills considered in June by high school students during Unicam Youth 2012, a Big Red Summer Academic Camp sponsored by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension 4-H Youth Development.

This was the second time for both girls to attend the Unicam Youth camp, an experience vastly different from most other summer camps.

“I didn’t go to this camp because it’s about government,” Potter said. “I went because I like the public speaking aspect of it and like to debate the issues.”

The girls sat on opposite sides of the pipeline issue.

“I believe the pipeline would bring jobs to the state and help the economy,” Rice said on one side of the issue. “I was against this bill because it denied the pipeline access here.”

Potter stood firmly on the other side.

“I was fully in favor of this bill,” Potter explained. “They keep saying it’s safe and they’ll follow all of these added restrictions but there is still a chance something could go wrong. My standpoint is purely environmental.”

The pipeline bill is only one example of the issues discussed and debated during the Unicam Youth camp, a four-day simulation in which students take on the roles of lawmakers.

As senators, students are elected to positions and assigned committees. They hear testimony during hearings, debate legislation and discover first-hand the process of Nebraska’s Legislature.

Much of the camp is conducted in the Warner Chamber at the Nebraska capitol building where students occupy senator desks behind personalized nameplates.

Both girls served on the judiciary and the health and human services committees.

Potter sought and was selected to serve as speaker of the Legislature, a position her grandfather Bill Barrett held for four years.

“I researched the bills we were discussing and I felt like I had a good handle on them,” Potter said. “As speaker, you decide the order of the bills and you have quite a bit of power with that.”

Rice, on the other hand, wanted to be more open to changing her mind on issues, staying away from bill sponsorship or committee chair positions.

Although the high school perspective can be quite different than those of adult leaders, the girls said the bills passed by their group of senators mirrored the state Legislature last spring on bills concerning permit hunting for mountain lions, grandparent visitation rights and foster care services.

Potter took particular interest in a bill pertaining to medical assistance, specifically prenatal care, for women above the Medicare income guidelines.

“The majority of the women who fall into this category are illegal immigrants,” she said. “A lot of people turned this into an immigration issue but for me, it’s more about care of the child.”

Both girls said the Unicam Youth experience has piqued their interest in government and the issues faced by Nebraska’s senators each session.

“I’ve started paying more attention to the issues,” Rice said. “I like the fact that it’s helped me learn more about our government and it proves to me how one person can make a difference in the outcome.”

Although state or national politics isn’t at the top of Rice’s list of things to pursue in the future, the persuasion skills she has honed over the past two summers should be a benefit in years to come.

Potter agreed.

“I have so many ideas about the future but I have no clue where they will lead me yet,” Potter said. “This has definitely heightened my interest and improved my understanding of the issues and the government process. Being in the legislative chamber and actually working as a senator and voting on bills gives you a sense of power. It made me feel like I do have a voice and I can change things.”