State Senators Testify Before House Panel on 'Legislating in the Information Age'

Senators from Florida, Minnesota and Nevada told a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives' Rules Committee July 16 about ways to improve and streamline the legislative process in the Information Age.

The committee chairman, Rep. David Dreier (R-Calif.), called the hearing an examination of "how state legislatures are using information technology to help facilitate the legislative process." He said 29 state bodies had provided their members with laptop or PC access in the chamber during the past year, and many had Internet access and e-mail.

It was the third hearing since Dreier established the 21st Century Project in 1996 to assess the impact of technology on the legislative process and to recommend ways to change.

Officials from the three states said they supported the use of IT in the legislative process, but they also voiced some concerns about the tools.

They answered questions from Dreier, Rep. John Moakley (D-Mass.), Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla.) and Rep. John Linder (R-Ga.) about security, the loss of personal interaction due to technology and the fact that many people across the country still do not have access to computers or the Internet.

The Minnesota Senate has installed laptops for all the members and views technology as one of the best ways to interact with constituents, said state Sen. Steve Kelley. Minnesota state senators' laptops have e-mail functions that enable constituents to voice their opinions on a proposed bill or amendment while it is being debated on the senate floor, he said.

"This has impacted the role of local citizens where they can e-mail, and in real-time, affect the debate," Kelley said. "Any citizen now has the same kind of access that lobbyists have had in the past."

Kelley also said the Minnesota Senate's information office now processes about 10 requests per day for information about bills, down from about a 100, because most people can be referred to the state's World Wide Web site (www.state.mn.us) for the information they need. "The legislative role is to provide leadership in the use of technology," Kelley said.

Government at all levels "needs to encourage broader use," Kelley said. "The Internet shouldn't be a substitute for other means of communication. But legislators ought to demonstrate that they are using it in some fashion" in addition to other means of communication.

In Florida's legislature in 1991, computers brought a number of innovations to each member's desk, including the display of amendments, research tools, and messaging. But it also forever changed the decorum on the floor, said Tom Tedcastle, general counsel for the Florida House of Representatives.

Technology speeded up the legislative process significantly, which resulted in earlier filing deadlines, and provided greater public access, Tedcastle said.

However, the messaging feature on legislators' computers has been removed for two main reasons, Tedcastle said. First, under Florida's public records law, any message sent is made public and archived, eliminating the confidentiality and security that some messages require. Second, the position of the press gallery behind the Florida House members enabled any member of the press with a zoom lens to view the content of the legislators' computer messages.

"In fact, shortly after we installed the system, one of the members of the press informed me that one of the members was sending less than flattering comments about another member's intellect during debate," Tedcastle said.

In the West, Nevada had the first state legislature to use videoconferencing, setting it up between its biggest city -- Las Vegas -- and the legislature in Carson City, 450 miles away, said Steve Watson, chief deputy director at the Nevada Legislature.

Laptops were provided to all Nevada legislators in 1997, but at that time only a third were used, Watson said. This year, usage was up to 95 percent. "I see the problems, but I also see the advantage of getting the message out to the people and restoring confidence in their government by letting people interact freely," Watson said.

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