I've never been to a public hearing on a bill before, but when HB1440 - The Driver's Ed Bill had a hearing, I knew I needed to be there. Jeremiah is 16, so this issue is quite relevant in our house these days, and will be for many years to come.
For the next 13 years, I will have someone become eligible to drive every 2 to 3 years.
As we made our way through the corridors of the Legislative Offices building I was amazed at how crowded it was, with people from all walks of life. When we finally found room 203, the hall was PACKED. The transportation committee quickly realized that everyone wouldn't fit in the planned meeting room, and secured another room down the hallway. By the time we arrived at the new location, our ranks had swelled to the point of overflowing that room as well and we were ushered out of the building, across the street to the State House and into the historic House Chamber.
The New Hampshire State House is living history at it's best. It is the nation's oldest state house in which the legislature still meets in it's original chambers. And the House Chamber, where we were meeting, houses the largest state legislative body in the United States, with 400 members.
Imagine that, one of the tiniest states in the nation boasts the largest state legislative body!
Under the watchful eyes of John P. Hale, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Pierce, and Daniel Webster, the hearing got underway. The Chairman of the Transportation committee welcomed us and gave some instruction about decorum. They had not been expecting the general public in the House Chamber, so the keys for the electronic voting were still in place at each seat, as well as notes from the last House Session in each seat back. The 3 little ones squirmed under the watchful eye of the Chairman as he gave strong admonition to NOT touch the keys or the papers in the seat back.
A key is a tempting thing to a preschooler, especially when it has a shiny red tag with numbers attached to it.
In order to speak at the hearing, one must simply fill out a card telling who you are, where you're from, how long you intend to speak, and whether you are for or against the bill in question. The Chairman sorts the cards and calls people in turn. This was a popular bill, over 50 people requested to speak.
We heard first from those that had drafted the bill, and then the parade of citizens both for and against. Jeremiah kept score on his i-pod as to how many spoke for, and how many against. It's funny how narrow-minded a person can be without realizing it. I assumed (wrongly) that all these lovely people were here to support this bill. I quickly realized that the room seemed to be split 50/50 and that while we all had differences of opinion, we had one thing in common.
However there were differing opinions on how to achieve that goal. I was quite impressed by the driving instructors who focused not on how this bill would affect their business, but on the safety of our young drivers and those that share the road with them.
Jenny, Jessie & James were on their best behavior, awed by the grandeur of their surroundings, the enormous paintings of founding fathers staring down at them. It was almost as if Daniel Webster himself looked them in the eye and said, "Now mind your manners and hush now so the grownups can talk". But after an hour or two of hearing different versions of the same reasons on both sides of the fence...the young'uns got restless...and so began the trips to the bathroom. It's times like these that I'm especially thankful for my big kids. They willingly ushered their young siblings quietly in & out between testimonies while I knitted and waited my turn to speak.
After 3 hours, even the Chairman was getting restless...he requested that we not tell stories about "Uncle Billy" etc. and stick to just the subject of the bill, and that we all keep our comments to 5 minutes or less. James had surpassed his capacity to sit still and began the seat-changing game. I scoured my purse for mints, pen & paper, a mirror, anything that might quietly entertain Jessie and Jenny. Each time the Chairman called a name that wasn't mine, James plaintive cry whispered in my ear, "I hope they call you next Mommy!"
And then Jenny hit her head...
Don't worry, there was no blood, just a blood-curdling scream! I whisked her out into the hallway thankful once again for big kids and their ability to keep a lid on things without me there. Whispering a quick prayer for mercy, quiet children and dear God PLEASE let them call me next, I quickly got Jenny's tears dried and slid back into my seat. A few more requests by James "Are you next Mommy? I hope they call you next!" and I pulled out the big guns...If he would just be patient a little longer, we would leave as soon as I spoke and go straight to Wendy's for frostys. Well, if you know anything about little boys, you know they can endure almost anything for chocolate ice cream!
Again an appeal from the Chairman to keep our comments specific to the bill, and now there is a 3 minute time limit. Good thing I had planned on being quick. After hearing all the other testimony, I realized that much of what I had wanted to say had already been addressed by others far more eloquent than I.
However, there was a point that remained that no one had touched on, so I waited.
Finally! It's my turn! I pass Jennifer off to Jillian and approach the microphone with notes scribbled on the back of an envelope found in my purse. I have exactly 3 minutes to communicate the value of drivers ed, the value of choices, and the value of obtaining driving experience while still at home under a parent's watchful eye. I don't know how well I communicated my points, but the Chairman did congratulate me for hitting 3 minutes exactly.
As we quickly and quietly scooped up coats, Jenny got pinched in the seat, and let out a howl. The Chairman looked down from the podium with a twinkle in his eye and said,
"Does she want to testify too?"
Out in the cool night air, we discussed how glad we were that we had come. The strengths and fallacies of arguments on both sides, and our hope that this bill would pass. The evening was topped off with frostys from Wendy's and much discussion about the testimonies we had heard.
Will I become a regular at the State House now? No, certainly not. But if another bill comes around that I'm passionate about, I certainly wouldn't hesitate to go again...and bring the kids.
Oh yeah, and remember those shiny red keys I told you about?