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Lawmaker for a day

Published Feb. 6, 2006

If Philip Lopez was nervous, it didn't show.

The panel he was about to speak to would be the equivalent of a firing squad for most people: a Florida senator and four House representatives.

But he briskly approached the lectern with a huge smile on his face Wednesday night.

The Gaither High sophomore had something to say: "Florida schools should require students to have recess or P.E. every day from elementary through high school."

And, he thinks, it ought to be a law.

Lopez loves recess. It was always his favorite part of elementary school. Current restrictions on recess and physical education, and a rise in adolescent obesity, encouraged him to draft his bill.

Personal passions, experiences and desires inspired dozens of high schoolers like Lopez to present bills for state Rep. Kevin Ambler's "Ought to be a Law" contest last week.

The competition lets students at Chamberlain, Sickles and Gaither draft and lobby a proposal for Ambler, R-Lutz, and Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, to take before the Legislature where they'll try to make it a law.

More than 100 students and educators gathered for the mock legislative session at the University Area Community Center.

The panel included Florida's legislative brass: Crist and Reps. Ambler, Kim Berfield, R-Clearwater, Gus Bilirakis, R-Tarpon Springs, and Ed Homan, R-Temple Terrace. Sen. Les Miller, D-Tampa, attended but left early.

Panelists selected six of the 33 student-drafted bills as finalists in the competition.

Students advocated harsher punishments for rapists, requiring cameras to catch red-light runners and humane treatment of animals, to name a few.

Stephanie Ficca's bill would limit the number of passengers teens can carry in cars. If made into law, the bill might have saved her friend's life a few years ago, said Ficca, a Chamberlain sophomore.

"She had a lot of teenagers in the car telling her to turn up the radio and drive really fast," Ficca said. "They hit another car and my friend passed away."

Crist was impressed by the students' fervor.

"All I've seen in this room tonight has been passion - passion for issues, for animals, for others," Crist said.

"I see a few future senators and representatives in this audience," added Bilirakis.

If there were any, they were baptized by fire.

Mixed with legislators' compliments on students' composure and clarity came hard questions and harsh comments.

Each bill presentation included information about funding, possible opposition and support, mandates and timelines. If an element was missing or an idea seemed unfeasible, the panel let students know it.

Passage of a bill about protecting manatees would be "an uphill battle to the top of Mount Everest," Homan told one student.

"This bill has no chance of passing," Homan told another student about his bill that Homan said would interfere with Florida free trade.

"He's the Simon of the panel," Ambler joked, comparing Homan to Simon Cowell on the hit show American Idol.

But unlike American Idol contestants, most of the student bills sounded good to the panel.

Still, just for insurance, Josue Llil rubbed elbows with Homan during a short break. The Sickles junior gave the representative a condensed version of his bill to ban the sale of fish caught by longline fishing, a technique used to catch bottom-dwelling fish in open waters.

This was the second year for the contest, which had been exclusive to Gaither.

A bill drafted by Gaither students last year passed unanimously in the House but died in the Senate, coming up just short of becoming a law. The bill would have protected people from car impound fees.

Students at the three schools will vote for their favorite bill out of the six finalists. Ambler will present the top vote-getter to the Legislature within a month or so.

Ambler's camp is scheduled to announce the winning bill on Monday.

mber Mobley can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or


PPnelists selected two finalist bills from each school. The six finalists were:


+ A bill requiring personal safety courses to be taught in elementary school

+ A bill requiring seniors, ages 75 to 80, to take semiannual eye exams and seniors 80 and older to take annual eye exams


+ A bill establishing a fixed sum for those freed from Florida state prisons after having been found factually innocent

A bill requiring at least one gas station per company in certain areas to carry a generator


+ A bill requiring students to have recess or physical education every day from elementary to high school

+ A bill requiring veterinarians to administer anesthesia to dogs and cats having their tails partially amputated for cosmetic reasons