ALBANY – It was a bold new day in Albany Wednesday as the Assembly went live with a new system giving every member access to information about bills on tablet computers mounted atop their desks in the chamber.
Taking, perhaps, no chances, the system is strictly business: it contains just document-based details about bills and state laws.
No web surfing to check stock holdings or Albany bar specials. No FaceTime. No Trivia Crack. No sending emails to donors.
An attempt to avoid any obvious embarrassing situations in a town that has seen its share of embarrassments? No, said Assembly officials.
“We want to make sure the devices are secure,” said Michael Whyland, a spokesman for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
The devices, sold by Hewlett-Packard through an existing state contract, will add to paper documents that meet a constitutional provision for the aging process for new bills. Because of that, officials said, the devices need to be protected from any hacking or viruses that could occur if they were opened up to the Internet.
That it would be news when lawmakers get computers on their desks provides yet another insight in the sloth-like manner in which change is embraced in Albany. This one, though, was cleared by New York voters in a constitutional amendment approved in November.
Lawmakers in favor of the electronic age coming to the Assembly floor noted there are limits being placed on what these adults can do can be done with these new computers.
“You’re not going to get on Twitter. You’re not going to do any emailing. You’re not going to get on Facebook … No Netflix,” said who has been pushing for a paperless Legislature for years.
Computer safeguards aside, Assembly Democrats say the move is a major step to improving the operations of the chamber and is a pro-environment move.
“It gets us into the 21st century,” Heastie said.
The new system, including hardware and software, cost $212,000, but proponents say it eventually will save them that each year in the costs of paper.
In November voters gave final approval to a constitutional change allowing electronic forms of legislation to count for the state Constitution’s requirement that new bills be “upon the desks of the members” for three straight days before being considered for a vote.
That requirement can be circumvented, and often is on major bills like this year’s budget, with a message of necessity by the governor.
The new change in the Constitution cleared the way for the Assembly, followed next month by the Senate, to install the tablets.
They are essentially tapping into the existing Legislative Bill Drafting Commission, which is the clearinghouse for the 11,914 bills already introduced in the two houses just this year.
Assemblyman James Tedisco, a Schenectady Republican, said the new system will encourage lawmakers to read more bills because, when a piece of legislation is being debated on the floor, it will now be easier to look up specific passages.
“I think you’re going to have much more of an opportunity if you can find a bill,” he said of what he calls the “discouraging” paper-based system in which lawmakers desks are filled with legislative documents.
In their offices, lawmakers already can check up on legislation via computer, and anyone with a smartphone in or outside the chamber can look up a particular bill, unwieldy as that can be on a small screen.
Yet, for all the technological advances, Albany still very much embraces paper. The easiest evidence: the giant piles of bags filled with shredded paper from the offices of lawmakers and the Cuomo administration that are carried out a side door of the Capitol on Washington Avenue to waiting garbage trucks every evening.
“We’re not only going to be more efficient … We’re going to save millions of dollars,” said Tedisco, who on Wednesday renewed his long-stalled effort to ban newsletter mailings by lawmakers to constituents – a practice long part of Albany in which taxpayers pay for contacts from their legislators.
The odds for such a ban: zero.
To give time for the new system to work and lawmakers to get accustomed to it, Assembly officials say the plan is to end the practice of putting paper bills on every lawmaker’s desk after they get through this year’s legislative session.
Heastie cited one benefit: “We don’t have to hear Assemblyman Tedisco complain anymore at the end of session that he can’t see over his stack of papers,” referring to the public relations visuals Tedisco puts on each year to try to make his point about a paper-driven town.