Minnesota XMLs statutes

Minnesota Office of the Revisor of Statutes

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There wasn't anything wrong with the publishing software the Minnesota Revisor of Statutes Office used to prepare drafts of legislative bills. In fact, the nearly 30-year-old customized application served them well.

But officials realized that maintaining it was becoming more difficult, and "running on an old mainframe is simply not going to last forever," said Michelle Timmons, the state legislature's revisor.

The nonpartisan legislative office needed something that was quick and flexible to help prepare, amend and engross bills; add House and Senate committee reports and other floor action; and present a final version for the governor's signature. It needed to show each chamber's changes side by side on a document. It also needed something that could edit in print and electronic forms and merge session laws into the state's statutes.

"The integrity of the text and accuracy of the document are critical," Timmons said.

So, a couple of years ago, they explored usage of Extensible Markup Language and visited several other state legislatures in the process.

"One of the great things I see about XML is the ability to tag language...similar to what we were using in our customized software now," Timmons said. "So, we are able to replicate what we have now and do it in such a way that our end users wouldn't feel it's a wholesale change in the way we do things."

However, there was no "magic" product out there, so other legislatures that purchased publishing software still had to significantly customize the applications to fit their needs, Timmons said. Her office thoroughly evaluated about a dozen XML software editors in a six-month pilot project that ended October 2002.

A major feature of any software is its ability to show page and line numbers as reference points in legislative documents, Timmons said, noting that that's how lawmakers talk to each other when discussing changes to a bill. After the pilot, the final report recommended revamping the entire system for about $3.3 million. (Recognizing since the early 1990s that it would need to eventually replace the system, the office set aside money from its operating budget over a number of years to pay for it.)

The revisor's office settled on Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Arbortext Inc.'s offering, although the agency is still evaluating whether a Microsoft Corp. Windows or UNIX platform would replace its mainframe system. The XML software allows users to more easily automate the publishing process, reuse text, track changes, add numbered references and collaborate with other agencies.

The Minnesota revisor's office is planning to complete software development by next summer, test it and launch it Jan. 1, 2005, said Tim Orr, the office's systems analyst and programmer who is also serving as the project manager. The application will run on a graphical user interface and about 100 people will be trained on it.

P.G. Bartlett, Arbortext's vice president of marketing, said more state legislatures and secretaries of state offices are migrating toward such software. Public-sector agencies, he said, would save money and time. The company, which is providing consulting services to Minnesota's project, counts state legislatures in Alabama, Idaho, Maine, North Dakota, Oklahoma and Texas, among its clients.

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