A Student Goes to the Capitol

A Student Goes to the Capitol

An undergraduate student shares her first experiences with the state legislative process.

Not many college students get the opportunity to listen to a hearing about a bill at the Colorado State Capitol. Not many college students want to listen to a hearing about a bill at the State Capitol. Students have little to no interest in politics for the most part, even in their own community or state. That may be, in part, because politics is a difficult topic to discuss if you know nothing about it. It is not something that can easily be taught and understood. You have to get more involved in the field of politics, in some way, to have a better understanding.

I’ve started out small, interning with Colorado Common Cause to help get a sense of politics in the state I have lived in all of my life. The barrage of new language and information can be overwhelming at first, but you get used to it once you continue to see the same words over and over again. It just takes practice. Most of my work at CCC so far has been at a state level, and that’s led me to become more interested and concerned about the condition of my state. Though reading political news articles is helpful, it’s a whole new experience attending committee hearings for bills.

I recently had the opportunity to attend some hearings at the State Capitol. If I thought reading articles with specific political jargon was overwhelming, these experiences went above and beyond that feeling.

Two whistleblower bills, Senate Bill 16-056 and House Bill 16-1078, were scheduled for hearings at the same time in two different places. I initially chose to attend the Senate hearing taking place at the Legislative Service Building located nearby the State Capitol by Grant and 14th Street in Denver. I didn’t know what to expect when I entered the hearing room. Rows of chairs took up a majority of the space with a small rectangular table near the front, with a couple microphones and a semicircular table with several microphones in front of that. The rectangular table was where the lawmaker sponsoring the bill sat, along with the witnesses who came to voice their perspectives on the negatives or positives for the bill. Witnesses included community residents or representatives for organizations. The lawmakers at the semicircular table at the front were given the opportunity to ask the sponsors and witnesses questions, but no one in this room did.

I learned five minutes before the hearing began that the bill I needed to hear about was moved to a later date. Being brand new to the process I didn’t know what the etiquette was, and I thought the formal setting meant I would be unable to leave the room to go to the other hearing. But, I watched as the doors to the room opened and closed numerous times causing a lot of noise.  Seeing that other people could come and go as they pleased, I made the decision to get up and head towards the other bill hearing in the State Capitol across the street.

I had to try three doors before I was able to find one that let me inside. Unsure of where to go, I asked a lady at the information desk about the location of the room. When I was able to find the room, I was again unsure if I could suddenly walk in and sit down in the middle of the hearing. But, the situation was similar to the Senate bill hearing in formality and I was able to enter and quickly find a seat. It was a much different experience listening to this bill hearing. This House committee had a lot more lawmakers than the Senate committee across the street, which surprised me. There were also more seats than lawmakers at the front and I wondered if someone was missing. I liked that a few of the state representatives asked questions of the bill sponsor and witnesses this time.

A couple days later, I attended a hearing for two Senate bills about the elections process, Senate Bill 16-107 and Senate Bill 16-112, taking place on the third floor of the State Capitol. It was the day after the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 and a few state lawmakers were wearing Bronco shirts. This made the setting feel less formal, even more so when lawmakers would make a few jokes. I had thought that a bill hearing, especially in the State Capitol, would be strict and formal with no nonsense, but that was not what it was like. There was a sense of formality, but informality as well. This made it easier to speak, connect and understand the elected officials, who I knew nothing about.

The major difference in this room was that the witnesses were timed. Speakers in this room had three minutes to say what they needed, though the committee Chairperson allowed a couple people to go over the time limit. That made it more impressive when speakers were able to say what they needed within three minutes or a bit longer. The speakers at the House bill hearing had an indefinite amount of time and that is one of the reasons why that discussion was longer, taking nearly four hours compared to the two hours the two Senate bills needed.

For each of these bill hearings, after every witness had spoken, the state representatives and state senators discussed whether to pass or not to pass the bill. This process can get confusing. Lawmakers can make a motion for something, or the bill sponsor could have amendments to the bill that the other lawmakers can vote for or against. Of the four bill hearings I attended, only House Bill 16-1078 had amendments, and they drew a long discussion from the state representatives.

Some highlights from what I learned my experiences attending bill hearings so far: In one hearing, lawmakers didn’t ask any questions of the speakers and found it easy to make their decision. In others, they asked many questions and found it hard to pass or not pass the bill. I also found the lawmaker attitudes interesting. The lawmakers could be jovial, yet serious.

You can listen yourself to these hearings on the Colorado General Assembly website. That’s why there are microphones. Every person stated their name and organization numerous times, so you can follow listening online. But, listening to a bill hearing online is nothing compared to actually attending a bill hearing. You should consider it.

Leah Thompson is a junior at Regis University studying Communications and Spanish.