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NC legislators experiment with paperless chambers
Monday, 30 April 2012 00:00

North Carolina legislators file thousands of bills every two years, a labor-intensive process that contributes to the General Assembly's print shop churning out around 1 million copies annually.

It's the product of a system in which legislators for decades received stacks of the previous day's filed bills at their offices. Lobbyists and the press check wooden racks affixed to walls near the House and Senate clerks' offices filled with the newest legislative proposals.

"We've got a paper-laden culture at the Legislature," said House Speaker Thom Tillis, R-Mecklenburg.

Today, most legislators don't receive large bill piles and reporters check the web more often for bill information, but unread copies still fill recycling bins and trash cans. So General Assembly leaders believe it's time to consider using more technology while scaling back copying expenses.

The House and Senate will embark on a pilot program with the May budget session in which lawmakers will follow bills and amendments during floor debate on laptops or other devices, not paper. The House is going further by having members file their own bills electronically, and its wooden racks have been dismantled.

Lawmakers will still have the option of receiving paper copies this year, but a successful pilot could bring incentives to make it essentially obligatory in 2013.

"We're not trying to go totally automated overnight," said Senate Rules Committee Chairman Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson. "We're trying to move at a deliberate pace. We have varying degrees of technocrats in our chamber. And some don't even use a computer."

Sen. Austin Allran, R-Catawba, is one of the skeptics about automation. He gets his office assistant to print out emails from constituents. No tweeting by the 31-year veteran of the Legislature, Allran said, "and I'm definitely not on Facebook," even though the Hickory attorney said someone set up a page about him.

"I don't like laptops," the 60-year-old Allran said, because he's noticed lawmakers get distracted while perusing them in committees. "I'm not looking forward to this experiment."

At least half the states in the country have had specific projects to reduce paper use at their legislatures, and more than 40 states buy computers for lawmakers to use on chamber floors, said Pam Greenberg with the National Conference of State Legislatures. The Republican-led Senate finally allowed Internet-connected laptops in the chamber in 2011 after years of resistance by Democratic leaders.

Tillis said shifting more activity online should improve the legislative process. Peter Capriglione, a manager with the Legislature's information systems division, estimated the reduction in paper copies of bills and amendments could save $75,000 every two years.

Software created by legislative staff will allow lawmakers to follow a bill on their computer screens as it's being debated and voted upon. They'll be able to see any amendment being offered, too. They'll still vote by pushing buttons on their desk. Last-minute amendments will be scanned by a clerk and posted immediately on the screen.

Tillis, a former IBM consultant involved in his first paperless initiative in the business world in the mid-1980s, suggested the efficiency could ultimately eliminate two or three meeting days from annual work sessions. Tillis said he's not surprised some legislators are worried.

"It's a very common resistance initially to technology," said Tillis, "and more often than not, once they use it, they wonder why they ever resisted."

Even those who don't consider themselves Luddites are questioning details of the transition. About three dozen House members quizzed chamber Principal Clerk Denise Weeks and the Legislature's technology staff at training sessions last week in Raleigh. Democrats and Republicans are worried the software doesn't allow the bill and an amendment to be read simultaneously on the same computer screen, making it difficult to determine what would be changed before voting.

"We're making this move and we're limiting our ability to be effective legislators by seeing exactly what we're doing," Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, told Weeks, who plans a mock session this week with legislative employees on the House floor to test the system.

One solution would give all legislators two computers so the bill and amendment can be read together, but that would seem to cancel out cost savings. Some legislators use personal iPads to perform legislative work, and one legislative subcommittee is experimenting with tablets.

Tillis said it's likely that large bills with multiple amendments like the budget will remain on paper this year.

Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said she's concerned the technology could make it more challenging for citizens at the Legislative Building to access information if they don't have an electronic device: "I like the idea of being able to get more things online, but I do not see that as a substitute for ways of doing business, sharing information with the public and processing information."

Veteran Rep. Edgar Starnes, R-Caldwell, among the disappearing breed of legislators who keep paper copies of bills in several three-ring binders on his desk, joked that people like him will muddle through at first and ultimately adapt.

"They're going to drag some of those old dinosaurs into the modern age I guess," Starnes quipped.

 

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