Hooked on high-tech lawmaking.

Author:Boulard, Garry
Position:Cover Story
 
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Wading through the fast growing jungle of high-tech isn't easy, but most state legislatures are to a greater or lesser degree wired up for the computer age. Now it's time to get the bugs out - and bring the laggards up to speed.

For Arkansas Senator David Malone it has been a dream come true: a fully automated chamber where all 35 members of the Senate have their own laptop computers, letting them view, among other things, the full text of bills and amendments in a snap of the fingers.

The legislature also has its own Web page, Internet access, and a host of on-line connections - the 100 members of the House got their laptops in January - that give them the daily calendar, committee schedules and even the capitol cafeteria menu.

"It is a big step forward getting hooked up like this," says Malone, the former dean of the University of Arkansas school of law and longtime computer enthusiast. That step was partly prompted by Malone's Senate Efficiency Subcommittee, which researched the cons and pros of computerization and came to the same conclusion Malone did several years ago: "We needed to get the kind of order and organization in our chamber that only a computer system could give us."

Arkansas' head-first plunge into the computer sea is hardly a singular event. All across the country lawmakers are going online - most for the first time - and many after years of doubt and hesitation.

As of early 1997, legislators in more than two-thirds of the states - frequently in both chambers - are online with far-reaching electronic networks and laptop computers. The speed with which the lawmakers have embraced the new technology has startled even seasoned observers. "They are coming up to speed very fast," notes Tom Temin, editor-in-chief of Government Computer News, whose monthly magazine has charted for nearly two decades the growth of computer use in government.

"State legislatures are seen as one of the last, great frontiers for widespread computer use," continues Temin. "This is normally a hidebound, tradition-bound world where people feel if something is not on parchment, how can it possibly be law?"

But that resistance, contends Sanford Scharf, the director of Iowa's Legislative Computer Support Bureau, has wavered in the presence of actual computers. Beginning this year all members of both the Iowa House and Senate have notebook personal computers with Pentium chips on their desks, and Scharf got an immediate measure of the legislative response when he saw how many lawmakers showed up for the first computer training sessions in January: 95 out of 100. "It was fantastic," says Scharf. "I would have been happy with just fifty."

And the new lawmaking computer enthusiasts elude easy age and seniority classification: "We don't have only young people in our legislature, we have many older representatives who are just not familiar with computers, who never used them before in their lives," adds Scharf. "And they dove right in. They have really embraced the computer age."

THE COST-BENEFIT QUESTION

In Nebraska, lawmaker response to technology has been similarly buoyant, a noted transformation from earlier skepticism that the roughly $350,000 it would cost for legislators and a handful of staff members to have computers was too high a price to pay. "I'm too conservative to think about spending that much money for each senator," Senator Jim Jones remarked last year as the unicameral Legislature debated whether or not to go online.

Now the lawmaker response is decidedly positive: "I really like having a computer system," says Nebraska Senator Kate Witek. "It was a long time coming and I'm glad it's here now." She adds that the computers for senators have been a "very welcome addition to the chamber and have made life much more easy for me in terms of the amount of work I can get done. I use my computer all of the time."

But Nebraska lawmakers this year have been swayed by an equally compelling set of numbers: the roughly 110 pounds of bills weighing down each member's desk at the end of most legislative sessions, and the hope that somehow computers will someday lessen that...

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