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Civics lesson will come first-hand

Published Aug. 24, 2005

Florida's next new law could come from the minds of teenagers.

On Wednesday, state Rep. Kevin Ambler told students at Gaither High School that he would bring a bill they write before the Legislature in March. He said his "It Ought to be a Law" bill-writing contest is the only one of its kind in the nation.

Students at the northwest Hillsborough school say the best part is there are no restrictions on topics or ideas.

"This gives young people like us a chance to get our voices out," said senior Jordan Booth, 18. "It's a great idea."

Students in 17 American history and government classes will research and write bills over the next three weeks. A committee that includes members of Ambler's staff will whittle the list to three bills thought to have the best chance of passing.

The entire student body will choose the bill that ultimately will be introduced.

"I will take whatever you select," Ambler, R-Lutz, told a freshman class Wednesday.

Ambler, a trial lawyer recently elected to his second term, said the contest will provide students a hands-on exercise in lawmaking. His two children, Jason and Jami, attend Gaither, which is one of three high schools in Ambler's House District 47. He wants all three schools _ Gaither, Sickles and Chamberlain _ to participate next year.

Gaither principal Brenda Grasso said she hopes the chosen bill will pass, but is more excited about the lessons being offered.

"This just seems like a great opportunity for them to get an understanding of government and their role in it," she said.

Said American history teacher Jason Levy, "Too often, they're just blase."

Once the bill is filed, some Gaither students will go to Tallahassee to present the legislation to various committees. They also will lobby lawmakers through letters, e-mails and visits.

If the bill gets approved, Ambler wants Gov. Jeb Bush to come to Gaither to sign it into law.

Jessica Harris, 17, said she can't wait to begin writing bills. She wants to talk to her parents about ideas since she's not sure of any herself.

"I'm not a huge political person," said Harris, a senior. "I like politics but I don't know a lot about it."

Ambler warned the students about the scrutiny their bill will receive from lawmakers, the press and the public. Their biggest hurdle, he said, will be figuring out how to fund their idea.

Ambler said he's not worried the teens will float anything frivolous since teachers will be there to guide them. He told the students he has only the highest expectations.

"It's your way of making a difference, not just talking about it," he said. "It's going to be a lot of hard work."

Most bills don't pass in their original form, he warned. Many are killed outright, and some end up as amendments attached to other legislation.

During the last legislative session, none of the bills Ambler sponsored survived.

So what if the student-backed bill dies?

"That's a lesson for them as well," Ambler said.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or