Rep. Thomas visits Sweetwater eighth-graders

LAWRENCEVILLE - Some students at Sweetwater Middle School got a sweet lesson in how state laws are made on Friday.

"Let's say I want to make it a law that schools must serve ice cream on Fridays," said state Rep. Brian Thomas, D-Lilburn, who visited the Berkmar cluster school to speak to gifted eighth-graders.

First, Thomas said, the details of the law must be decided. Can any ice cream be served? Should it be fat free? Chocolate or vanilla?

Thomas said the Legislative Counsel then helps him write a bill stating every school should serve vanilla ice cream on Fridays. But the work has just begun, he warned.

After the clerk of the House reads the bill, it gets sent to a committee, whose members would ask questions. Thomas offered a few examples: "Why did you select vanilla? Do you have a problem with chocolate ice cream?"

The committee can decide to change some details of the bill. In this case, Thomas said, committee members can choose chocolate ice cream instead of vanilla.

The bill is then sent to the Rules Committee before it can make it to the House floor. Then, Thomas said, he stands in the well and asks his colleagues to vote for his bill. To vote, legislators push either a red or a green button.

Even if he sees a sea of green lights, meaning the bill has passed the House, Thomas said it's not over yet.

The bill gets sent to the Senate, where it goes through a similar process.

"In the Senate, a senator can say, "I'm not a fan of chocolate ice cream. But I've always liked lime sherbet,'" Thomas said. "So the bill started as vanilla ice cream, left the House as chocolate. Now it's in the Senate as lime sherbert."

For a bill to pass, both sides of the General Assembly must agree before it can become law. The bill then goes back to the House, and it can end up as vanilla, chocolate, lime sherbet - or strawberry, Thomas said.

"The process is designed not to be easy because we want to make sure when we create a law, it is meaningful," he said.

Social studies teacher Lucy Uceda said the ice cream metaphor captured the students' attention.

Thomas also spent about an hour answering students' questions, which they developed and researched, Uceda said.

"Having an intimate question-and-answer session was wonderful for them," Uceda said.

Thomas, an archaeologist who never dreamed of working in politics, said he decided to run for office five years ago because he had reached a point where he was going to sit on his couch and complain or stand up and do something about it. Having no political experience, he said he read books about how to campaign and run for office.

He said he thinks it's important for students to learn about the political process. He encouraged students to contact elected officials and share their concerns with what is happening in the community.

"I think the younger you get them engaged in what's happening politically and being aware of issues, the sooner they're going to get engaged in them," he said.