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Paperless Legislature in West Virginia - 2002-02-03

Americans use 200 million metric tons of paper each year and throw away more than half of it, which translates into $8 billion worth of waste. In an effort to cut down on their waste and make their government more efficient, the West Virginia State Legislature is moving towards a paperless system.

When the gavel fell, opening the 2002 Session of the West Virginia Legislature, something was missing in the House of Delegates. No longer were desks cluttered with stacks of bills, amendments and announcements. Instead, there were chic, black portable computers, electronically connected to each other. The new system was set up by House technology expert Joe Koval. "It's been a mammoth undertaking," he says. "I mean, when you have 2 or 3 computers to look after, it's not so bad, but when you have 100 computers, every time there's a little quirk or a little glitch, you've got to correct all 100 machines. That makes it a challenge."

Using the new system is very much like surfing the Internet. Now, everything the delegates need during a floor session is at their fingertips, whether it's a bill, the daily calendar or a committee report. And that's not all. Mick Bailey, who also works in House technology, says there's also a special legislative search engine. "They'll be able to search bills by the bill number or they'll be able to search through the short titles of all the bills," he says. "They'll have access to all the senate bills so they can pull those in and look at those."

As lawmakers debate proposed legislation, they can use the new system to make and save private notes right on the bills, which they can retrieve at a later date. Because portions of the documents will also be posted on the web, private citizens also have access to all the bills. But Joe Koval says the aspect he likes best is the time saving factor. "Frequently, when we've gone to a bill or some kind of amendment, people would say "Well, I don't have that." Well, they won't be able to say that anymore, because everything will be right here on the machine," he says. "Everything that can be accessed will be accessed right there."

And when the debating is over and the voting begins, the new computer system will also make a difference. Once delegates have locked in their 'Aye' or their 'No,' they'll receive an immediate tally and A list of how their associates voted.

The idea for the time and paper saving technology started three years ago, when Majority Leader Rick Staton visited the Virginia Legislature, and saw a similar system in action. "We were very much impressed with it. We have a lot of computer infrastructure that's built in here," he says. "I thought West Virginia should be the example to businesses and industry about how to use technology, and advance their own business or causes within their programs."

Yet even with all the benefits, there are a few hurdles to overcome. Money for one, the software and portable computers cost nearly $350,000, and West Virginia will be paying that off for the next three years. Then there are the people using the system, more than half of the lawmakers are not computer savvy.

So Mick Bailey says he's fine tuning the program to make it even more user friendly. "All they really need to do is really look at it to understand, just from the way it looks, how it's going to work," he says.

Mr. Bailey and Mr. Koval are also offering hour long computer classes before and after the session, to help lawmakers gain a better understanding of the system. Once delegates feel comfortable with the new technology, they'll be allowed to take the portable computers to their offices or even home over the weekends.

Delegate Paul Prunty says this is the best thing that's happened to the Legislature in years. "Being the oldest member of the House in service, I am a little bit less reluctant than young people to delve into this," he says. "This is my first experience with a computer. I really think this is a good thing and I can really see where this is going to be an asset for the individual members."

Delegate Prunty says most of his colleagues can't wait for the final phase of the paperless process to begin. Once the bugs are worked out and all the delegates are fully trained, it will be the Senate's turn to go high tech. When that happens, members of the two Houses of the West Virginia Legislature will find it easier to communicate and perhaps, compromise.