By Keith Farner
Two of the hottest political topics in the country today, legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage, were at the forefront of a discussion on Wednesday between Berkmar High students and Gwinnett Congressman Rob Woodall.
Questions about those topics were among several directed at Woodall in a nearly hour-long question-and-answer session organized by Berkmar teacher Erica Brown, who teaches Advanced Placement government and politics.
Woodall said he enjoys speaking with younger people because they tend to be more optimistic than older people, and if a solution is found, there's a greater chance to get 85 to 90 years out of it.
"I think it's an opportunity for them to experience democracy in action themselves and understand how they can be a part of the process, and make your representatives, your politicians, accountable for their actions and clarify what they need so they can be conscientious voters, because they're the next generation of voters," Brown said. "That's going to take place for them next fall. You'll probably never find themselves in this circumstance again."
Senior Quang Tran said Woodall's visit contrasted the notion that the Berkmar community is underdeveloped and underserved. He called the chance to meet Woodall an "exciting opportunity."
Several students cited Woodall's voting record after they visited the web site votesmart.org, which tracks legislators' voting record, ballot measures, public statements and other issues.
Senior Basher Hassan said Woodall's visit showed him that Hassan has more power than he thought he did.
"It's great to see that he cares enough to actually come down to our level," Hassan said. "Just to see our government in action, it gives us hope. It makes me want to actually vote more, and do more to help support, not necessarily him, but our elected officials."
The federal government, Woodall said, should not be in the business of legalizing marijuana.
"It is strange to me that we spend so much time, particularly in your lifetime, fighting smoking," Woodall said. "Have you seen these commercials? They're scary. It seems strange to me that we've fought so far to abolish smoking, and fight so hard to legalize marijuana. But I'll tell you it's a state and local decision."
After he asked for a show of hands and found several Berkmar students working for minimum wage, he asked the students if their employer would keep their job if their pay was raised to $10.10 an hour.
"That's really the question," Woodall said. "Nobody's supposed to work for minimum wage for their lifetime, it's supposed to be an entry-level wage. I'm not enthusiastic about raising the minimum wage at the federal level."
Woodall then cited a report from the Congressional Budget Office that said raising the minimum wage would lift 900,000 Americans out of poverty, but also destroy 500,000 jobs.
"I don't fault the president for focusing on lifting people out of poverty," Woodall said. "I hope he doesn't fault me for focusing on the jobs."
About the new federal healthcare law, commonly called Obamacare, Woodall was asked how he felt about the law, and how President Barack Obama lied during the promotion of the law. Woodall said Obama identified two challenges with healthcare today, costs and access, but crafted the law with, "exactly the wrong solution, which was more one-size-fits-all Washington policy instead of more state flexibility."
"There is not one word in Obamacare, 2,700 pages, not one rule, that we could not have passed ourselves in Georgia, any day of the week we wanted to," Woodall said. "There's nothing magic about Washington. Everything he did, we could have done ourselves years ago, but didn't."
Woodall said Obama was torn between his policy advisors and political advisors over the line, "If you like your doctor you can keep it."
"I give the president great credit that he changed the national debate, these are things we wouldn't have done 10 years ago, but today? If we had a show of hands across America of should kids who are 26-years-old be able to stay on their parents' policies? That was a crazy idea five years ago," Woodall said. "Today, I think about 80 percent of America would raise their hand and say we like that."
Woodall's solution for Obamacare would be to make it optional.
"If it does something valuable for you and your family, keep it," he said. "If it hurts you and your family, get out of it. I can live with that."