p-legislatureelectronics-012809 State House grapples with electronic communications Adams' rules limit cell phone, laptop comp

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PORTLAND — The state House of Representatives unanimously approved new rules this year that limit lawmakers’ use of cell phones and laptop computers during joint sessions with the Senate and at some times prohibit their use completely.
At the same time, the House this week is preparing to go “paperless,” meaning legislators will for the most part get information on their laptops on the House floor, as opposed to the reams of paper they’ve depended on in the past.

State Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, proposed the two new rules restricting electronic devices. The first rule requires “personal electronic communication devices” to be turned off and inconspicuously placed during joint sessions or when deemed appropriate by the presiding officer.
Adams said he has seen legislators playing online poker and other games while the governor is addressing joint meetings of the Senate and House.
The second rule calls for house members in session to restrict text messaging, e-mailing and other forms of electronic communication to personal business and the business of the House. This, according to Adams, is meant to stop lobbyists sitting in the gallery from sending messages to legislators on the floor.
“They get entire speeches mailed to them from lobbyists who are sitting in the gallery,” Adams said . He also said that lobbyists will send suggested questions for legislators to ask the opposing side.
“We are there to do the peoples business, not the lobbyists’ bidding,” Adams said.

While many House members use laptops in session, the state does not provide legislators with the computers and there are members who still do not own the devices. So even though the House is switching to a paperless form of information sharing, paper copies will still be available. 
Adams said the online information system used by the House will utilize “push” screens, which means that whatever topic the Speaker of the House is talking about will automatically appear on the laptops of legislators.
With laptops more prevalent than ever on the House floor and in committee meetings, Adams admitted the new rules may rely on self-enforcement by legislators who have promised to uphold the rules of the House. They also face the possibility of being shamed publicly by fellow legislators that may catch them, he said.
“Technology always outpaces people, it’s always a catch-up game,” Adams said. “There are issues of politeness and decorum that have not been figured out yet.”

The House rules do not affect how the Senate does business. Adams said he knows of no proposal to change Senate rules.

Kate Bucklin can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or kbucklin@theforecaster.net.