'Frankfort Focus' Teaches Students, Public How a Bill Becomes Law

By Gail Hairston

(April 4, 2016) — Students in Stephen Voss’ "PS 476: Legislative Process" course helped craft a watchdog class project to follow legislation through the Kentucky State Legislature.

Voss, University of Kentucky associate professor of political science and a frequent media analyst and commentator on state and national politics, proposed “Frankfort Focus” to engage his students in the day-in, day-out workings of a state government.

The "PS 476" course enrolls a mixture of students. About two-thirds of them major in either political science or related fields. The rest are part of the UK Department of Political Science Kentucky Legislative Internship Program (KLIP) and in Frankfort three days a week while the legislature is in session, interning with legislators and other elected and appointed officials. The UK College of Arts and Sciences department conducts a Kentucky Legislative Internship Program every spring semester in even-numbered years, to take advantage of the Commonwealth's longer legislative sessions. This comprehensive legislative boot camp can serve as the culminating experience of a political science major's studies, or it can be a great launching point for students earlier in their academic careers who intend to continue their study of the political process or to go on to additional political work on the national level. 

Voss divided his aspiring young politicos into seven teams, based on their public policy interests in sweeping topics such as state and local governments, health and welfare, and transportation and natural resources. Each team was instructed to monitor the progress of legislation in their policy area and to report on major developments, such as significant amendments or key votes, and to explain the main policy and political dynamics behind the bills.

The students themselves suggested how they wanted to report the information to each other and to the public; they chose to use social media, specifically www.wikia.com

Voss said he ”let them decide our approach as much as possible. Some of their decision making followed parliamentary procedures as though they were a legislative body, with one of the students serving as chair of the meeting."

”The Frankfort Focus" wiki on Kentucky legislation can be found at http://frankfort-focus.wikia.com/wiki/Frankfort_Focus_Wikia.

“A bill-tracking project permits the students to learn from each other, but they can work together flexibly to accommodate such differing schedules,” Voss said. “Also, I thought the students would take special satisfaction from their course work if it had a greater purpose. Some of the students have made it clear to me that they take pride in producing a body of knowledge that will outlast the class and possibly help researchers later.”

The professor and his students perceived a void in information about the state's legislative process. While a legislative session is underway, citizens basically have to choose between relying on the media to learn what's happening or digging into really detailed, ponderous websites that assume users have inside information.

“Also, the information tends to emerge in bits and pieces, strung out across time,” Voss said. “So when a session ends, there's little overview of what happened in general or in specific policy areas. The wiki our students are creating has a different audience in mind, not the people who want to know now what's happening on a day-to-day basis, but those who might want to come back later and learn about this spring's policy-making activities.”

Voss intends to keep building "Frankfort Focus" in the fall by adding a portion about Kentucky elections for students in his "PS 472: Political Campaigns and Elections" course.

Currently a Kentucky Senate intern, UK sophomore Patrick Mason aspires to a civil service or government career and took the course to “become familiar with the mechanics behind the passage of statutes, especially in Kentucky.”

“We chose to use a wiki format because it is conducive to continual changes and updates. Something new is always happening in government — a new issue or a new bill can change everything. We were really excited to have a way to work together as a class to cover the entire session of bills and to allow for that to be continued in the future,”the Middlesboro, Kentucky, native said.

Mason’s goal is “to see people more engaged in what happens in Frankfort. Whether citizens realize it or not, the state government has a lot of direct influence over our daily lives. We ought to pay more attention to their work going forward. This website is part of that philosophy of engaging voters for what they need to know.”

Unlike most KLIP participants, political science junior Mary-Grace Luscher of Stanford, Kentucky, works with Kentucky River Resources LLC, a lobbying group rather than a legislator during her days in Frankfort.

Luscher, who plans to attend law school with hopes of continuing her lobbying career in Kentucky, said, “I learned what it takes to move legislation through the chambers. There is a lot more behind-the-scenes action than most people believe.

“The wiki breaks down legislation easily and also links to other aspects of the process, like who sponsored a bill. These tasks would usually require more than one website for this information since it is not directly linked. But the bill pages on the wiki provide insight into the legislation, such as related news articles and a summary describes the bill and amendments in layman's terms,” Luscher said.

“I believe that the wiki will become more useful as more pages are added,” she said. “It was not the easiest task uploading the information on the wiki, but now that there are templates in place, it is easier to add information. I also believe now that the session is coming to a close, more outside information is available that can be added to the site.”

A native of Springfield, Illinois, political science senior Stephanie Obieroma was a very active KLIP member of the health and welfare team. She said her experience as an intern “’made me aware of how the legislative process works.”

While interning for Sen. Gerald Neal and Rep. George Brown Jr., Obieroma attended meetings with her legislators’ constituents, discussed how issues might impact the next generation, and debated jury duty in accordance to race with Chief Justice John Minton.

“I have learned there is a lot that goes on behind-the-scenes that the general public does not know in terms of political strategy and what bills to consider,” Obieroma said. “I have gained a wealth of insight … in terms of bills and how leadership functions. This experience has given me insight into the real world of politics on a state level."

One insight Obieroma gained is that legislators must work to find a balance between loyalty to their political party and loyalt to their personal beliefs. 

"Neither one has to be compromised for the sake of politics," she said. "You have to stand your ground on certain issues and to toe the party line on others."

For more information about the UK students’ Wiki site, visit http://frankfort-focus.wikia.com/wiki/Frankfort_Focus_Wikiahttp://frankfort-focus.wikia.com/wiki/Special:WikiActivity and http://frankfort-focus.wikia.com/wiki/Natural_Resources_%26_Environment_Bills# .

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