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Arizona lawmaker wants to lower age to serve as a legislator to 18

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Arizona Legislature

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- Arizona voters could decide next year how they feel about having people who aren't yet old enough to drink making state laws.

A proposal by newly elected Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, would set the minimum age for legislators at 18. They now have to be 25 to take office.

But Gress, who first ran for town council in Cyril, Okla. at 18, said he doesn't believe that his ideas at that time, like how to deal with a money-losing ambulance service, didn't have merit. And he said that also must have been the belief of the 124 people who voted for him, though he lost.

And now, at 34, he believes others deserve a chance to serve, even if they will be involved in major policy decisions like enacting new laws and adopting an $18 billion state budget.

Gress is likely to face questions from lawmakers who have to consider his HCR 2004, all of whom are older than 25. And the big one is maturity.

There is a lot of scientific evidence that the prefrontal cortex matures during adolescence and is not fully developed until age 25. And that's the section of the brain the influences attention, impulse control, managing emotional reactions and predicting the consequences of one's actions.

"I just don't buy that at all,'' he told Capitol Media Services.
"My frontal cortex was fully formed, in my view, when I talked about issues facing our town,'' Gress said. "And it resonated with 124 adults who voted.''

He said it also presumes that some people are just too young to care about their community.

And Gress said lowering the age also is more likely to create a legislature that's more reflective of the population.

He hasn't done the math for the newly elected crop of 30 senators and 60 representatives. But Gress, who until this year was the budget director for Gov. Doug Ducey said he calculated out the average age for lawmakers last session in the neighborhood of 53 or 54 years.

By contrast, the U.S. Census puts the average age at 38.

"In this case, there's a generational divide that I hope to bridge with this resolution,'' he said.

It also is not a novel idea, with 19 states allowing 18-year-olds to run for at least one chamber.

Gress acknowledged that an 18-year-old legislator is considered too young to buy a drink or smoke, whether tobacco or marijuana. But he said some of this was based on public policy arguments, like deterring teens from smoking until they are 21 in hopes of keeping them from starting in the first place.
And there's something else.

Gress said it's not like it's a shoo-in to get elected.

He spoke of his own experience last years having to go door-to-door to introduce himself to constituents as well as to meet educators and business leaders. And then there's the issue of either raising money directly or getting sufficient signatures to qualify for public funding.

"If an 18-year-old can make the case to tens of thousands of Arizonans, key leaders in a community, then they have every right, as much as someone who's 25 years old or 50 years old, to serve the people of Arizona,'' Gress said.

Even if it makes its way through the House and Senate, the constitutional amendment would still require voter ratification.

But Gress said said this isn't a bid to get a political advantage for himself as the 18- to 24-year olds who might want the change would show up in higher numbers at the polls in 2024 to vote to approve it and then also vote for him. He said his legislative district which covers portions of northeast Phoenix, Paradise Valley and Scottsdale has a higher-than-average median age than much of the rest of the state.

No date has been set for a hearing on his measure.