HED:New computers speed process, provide easy constituent access
By Bobby Harrison
JACKSON Debate on the floor of the Mississippi House of Representatives got a little complicated last week.
A member had just offered an amendment that would significantly alter a bill designed to provide tax relief for many of the state's married couples. Thanks to the new computer system being used at the state Capitol - complete with laptop computers for all 174 members - each legislator was supposed to be able to call up the amendment at his or her desk to see how the proposal would change the bill.
During all the legislative maneuvering, Rep. Charlie Capps, D-Cleveland, the 72-year-old chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, stood up to ask a question of House Speaker Tim Ford, D-Tupelo.
"Mr. Speaker, where are those computer technicians who are supposed to be helping us?," asked Capps, speaking from his desk in a coveted location in the back of the House chamber.
"They are over here on the sides," Ford told Capps.
"How about permanently stationing one right here?" asked Capps, the gray-haired, cigar smoking former sheriff who is considered one of the most powerful and most knowledgeable members of the Legislature.
Trying to switch from a paper-intensive legislative operation to the wireless computer system has been a learning experience for most members of the Mississippi Legislature.
But most said they are adjusting.
"I'm surprising people," said Rep. Billy Bowles, D-Houston. "I have been on the Internet. I can go to my computer and get the weather in Tupelo if you want it."
Long time coming
The Legislature, led in part by former state Sen. Walter (Pud) Graham R-New Albany, began working and budgeting in 1994 to install the wireless Panasonic computer system, which cost $1.3 million. Each laptop computer has 16 megabytes of random-access memory and an easy-to-use touch screen. Each computer also has a CD-ROM.
With the computers, legislators can call up any bill or a number of bills on related subjects. For instance, all the bills concerning taxes or youth courts could be called up, or all the bills authored by a particular legislator could be pulled up. And if that's not enough, the history of what's happened to all the bills filed during the last three legislative sessions also is available.
And through the system, the legislators have access to the Internet and all the information that is available through today's technology. The state pays $700 per month to acquire Internet access for 120 staff members and the 174 legislators.
But the most important part of the system, many say, is the access it provides to the public. When all the problems are worked out, the public will be able to tap into the Legislature's web site via the Internet, call up bills and track action in the House and Senate. Currently, tapping into the bill status information is a hit-and-miss proposition. Some people are having luck doing it, while others are not.
For instance, people using the ever-popular America On-Line service are having trouble calling up bills filed and acted upon by Mississippi legislators. Macintosh users also cannot tap into the system, computer technicians say. Efforts are being made to work out the problems, but it could take much of the session to get the system working properly, said Don Flowers, director of data processing for the Legislative Budget Office.
When those kinks are worked out, legislators say their constituents will have access to all the actions of the Mississippi House and Senate.
Lobbyists, who make their living following action of the Legislature, said they are excited about the new technology.
"You can use it to get information without having to bother the legislative staff," said Mark Leggett, a lobbyist for the Mississippi Manufacturers Association. "It ought to make the whole process run more efficiently because they will have more time to do their jobs."
Flowers agreed, saying, "This opens up a lot of opportunities for us to make information available to the public."
Lots of information
Information that it provides is what legislators say they like about the system. Sen. Alan Nunnelee, R-Tupelo, said when a constituent calls him about a bill, he can call it up and discuss the legislation.
In the past, legislators haven't always been able to do that because they can't keep up with the more than 3,000 bills filed every session nor can they keep copies of all the bills. Now, thanks to the computer system, they have easy and quick access to those bills while at the Capitol or at home.
And the many legislators who don't have an office at the Capitol say the computers are handy to work on and study legislation at their desks in the House and Senate chambers without having to keep up with a stack of paper.
And besides giving the legislators access to information, the computer also is a work tool. For instance, Rep. Bill Miles, D-Fulton, used his computer last week to write legislation, which he then turned over to the House legal staff to put in the final form.
"If we are going to continuously push technology for the state, then we should be a part of it," said Rep. Eloise Scott, D-Tupelo.
Still, some legislators said they enjoy being able to physically grasp the paper bills. Even Miles, who has more experience on the computer than many members because of his public relations background, said he enjoys being able to hold the pieces of paper in his hands.
And the paper - countless stacks of it located throughout the Capitol - probably will remain. But in the long run, the amount of paper used might be reduced. Many House and Senate members who are well versed on the system might opt not to have the huge stacks of bills on their desks in the House and Senate chambers.
But for many legislators, it's still a learning process on the computers and the papers will remain. Reps. Billy McCoy, D-Rienzi, and Bowles of Houston, who are deskmates, said they are going to work together to make sure they don't miss anything. During action on the floor, Bowles said either he or McCoy would be following action via the computer while the other would be following action via the stack of paper bills.
Don Flowers said about 80 percent of the members are using the computers.
Said Sen. Bennie Turner, D-West Point, "I have been impressed with the number of members I have seen using the computers - especially some of the more mature members."