Senators quiz high school students

Their bill to require more driver vision tests makes it out of a Senate committee.

Published April 26, 2006

TALLAHASSEE - On Saturday, 18-year-old Ashley Noesen danced at her senior prom. Tuesday, she stood across from members of the Florida Senate.

"We're still waiting for someone to actually describe your bill," said Sen. Jim Sebesta, chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee and a St. Petersburg Republican.

"What does it do? You folks up there have to do this. What does it say?"

Noesen and several other Tampa high school students fumbled for a response. The bill would require drivers to pass a vision test each time they renew their license, and the students all knew that. But for a moment they looked at each other, unsure who would take the podium.

"If we were to vote right now," Sebesta continued, "we'd have to all vote no."

After a pause, Sickles High freshman Blythe Broecker approached the microphone. "Mr. Chairman," she began.

In a city where political showdowns are commonplace, this one looked like a mismatch, pitting eager high school students against savvy legislators.

* * *

Lawmaking is usually left to lawmakers and lobbyists. Rep. Kevin Ambler, R-Lutz, wanted to try something different.

With the help of state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, Ambler asked Tampa high school students to draft a bill that he and Crist would sponsor in the Legislature. Noesen's driver's license legislation beat out dozens of proposals from three Tampa high schools, Chamberlain, Gaither and Sickles.

Drivers can renew their license twice, by mail or Internet, without taking a vision test. Noesen's bill would require vision testing with each six-year renewal. Drivers older than 80 would also have to take an eye exam every four years.

The bill moved out of a House committee last month, and students persuaded the AARP not to oppose the legislation. Dave Bruns, a spokesman for the AARP, said there is scientific evidence vision deteriorates with age. "If there's good science to support restrictions, then we support restrictions," Bruns said.

Work then began to win over the Senate Transportation Committee, where students had heard Sebesta hated the bill. The senator said he agreed to place the student's bill on his committee's Tuesday agenda only as a favor to Crist.

"It's a great thing that the high schoolers are doing," Sebesta said before his last committee meeting as chairman. "You talk about a civics lesson, it's a civics lesson. But they will find out, if they haven't already, the legislative process is not a slam-dunk."

* * *

Early this week, Noesen, who graduates from Chamberlain next month, waited with the other students to lobby Sen. Ron Klein of Boca Raton, the Democratic vice chairman of the transportation committee and potential key vote.

As some students planned strategy, such as who would talk first and what they would say, Noesen flipped off her heels and curled up on Klein's beige couch. "I'm exhausted," she said. Student Zachary Ford listened to music on an MP3 player.

When Klein rushed into the office from another meeting, Noesen jumped like she was caught. Ford, 15, a Chamberlain sophomore, put the music away.

After Klein said he would support the bill, the students headed to dinner at the Silver Slipper. The next morning, they'd have to convince three more senators.

* * *

Broecker, who wants to be an actor, stepped to the podium Tuesday surrounded by her fellow students. Sebesta was still waiting for his answer.

"Mr. Chairman," said Broecker, 15, addressing Sebesta, 70, "our bill closes a loophole in the current renewal process for the (Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles). Right now, you can renew your license and skip the vision test."

Sebesta quizzed the students during the 40-minute hearing, noting missteps in parliamentary procedure along the way. At one point, he persuaded 18-year-old Alex Ernest to say the students would consider raising the legal driving age to 19 as an amendment to the bill.

"Do you see what we're saying?" asked Sebesta. "We're not saying what you're proposing is a bad idea. It's a very good idea. But there are many good ideas, and which ones do you pick?"

Increased vision testing could cost more than $1-million a year, according to a Senate analysis. Crist, a member of the transportation committee, quickly countered that's only 7 cents per year per Florida driver.

"Seven cents per year will add up to safer roads," added Ernest, a Chamberlain senior.

That was enough. With Sebesta's support, the bill passed 6-0. It now must be approved by the full House and Senate, and that will prove difficult.

Before the students headed home to make up for a missed French exam, and before Ambler began the work to get their bill to the governor, Sebesta offered one last lesson, one that may foreshadow the bill's fate:

"Good ideas such as yours many times don't pass, and many times can take forever to pass," he said. "We may be seeing you next year."

Aaron Sharockman can be reached at 727 445-4160 or asharockman@sptimes.com