By Emily Holter
Capital News Service
RICHMOND, Va. - Before the General Assembly adjourned, critical issues like gun control and tax incentives were being debated in the House chamber.
One smartly dressed young man proposed raising taxes to create a relief fund for counties with high unemployment. His colleagues raised questions about the idea: “Do you see this bill as anti-capitalist?”
But these weren’t legislators holding the debate; they were legislative pages - teenagers who run errands for lawmakers during their annual session.
Toward the end of the session, the roles are reversed: The pages act as delegates for a mock debate while the elected delegates serve as pages and even pass out candy and water to the participants.
The General Assembly’s page program allows teen students to work with delegates and senators, taking on responsibilities that prepare them for future government roles. In exchange for their hard work, the pages hold a mock General Assembly debate. They craft bills, act in committees and vote on legislation. In their roles as delegates, pages voted on 19 mock bills that passed committees. They tackled controversial legislation on the environment and other issues.
Debating back and forth, pages asked questions and researched facts for and against proposed bills - all while following formal House procedures.
Acting as a delegate, Jakob Dean, a page from Chesterfield, proposed creating the relief fund for counties with an unemployment rate of 7 percent or worse. Funds would help with public resources such as infrastructure, schools and police and fire departments. Dean proposed a 5 percent tax increase to businesses that make more than $1 million in yearly profits.
“I see where $50,000 seems like a lot of money, but that’s only 5 percent,” Dean said. “These companies do not give any of the money to anything.”
The other mock delegates fired away with hard questions. “How would this affect businesses if they have to pay higher in taxes?” one asked.
Dean swayed the make-believe legislators, and his bill passed, 27-10.
Some mock bills failed. Del. Matthew Haske’s bill offering a tax incentive for military service did not pass in the House.
Greg Habeeb, the father of one of the pages and a former member of the House of Delegates, said the page program is a valuable experience for young people.
“These kids get to see the General Assembly in action for five weeks,” Habeeb said. “It’s interesting to see the different issues they bring to the table.”