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Follow VPR's statehouse coverage, featuring Pete Hirschfeld and Bob Kinzel in our Statehouse Bureau in Montpelier.

Going Paperless: Lawmakers Govern With A $10 iPad App

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Angela Evancie
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VPR
Rep. Larry Fiske (R-Franklin 7) and Rep. Chuck Pearce (R-Franklin 5) work on their iPads in the House Chamber on Jan. 7.

Lawmakers are tough on trees. Drafting legislation, passing notes, and painstakingly documenting every step of their process uses up a lot of paper.

“Many of us would have 2 piles that were eight, 12 inches high of just paper,” said Rep. Alice Emmons, the chair of the House Corrections and Institutions Committee.  “And then our file cabinets were all full.”

In recent years, statehouse staff says the legislative session used up somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million printed pages, according to Duncan Goss, director of IT for the statehouse.

Stacked up, all those pages would be taller than the Empire State Building.

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Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR
Rep. Alice Emmons (D-Windsor 3-2), an early adopter, promotes iPad use on the House Committee on Corrections and Institutions, which she chairs.

So last year in an effort to make that stack a little shorter, virtually all lawmakers started using iPads instead of paper for much of their daily business.

And while printing off any given packet may be cheaper than an iPad, all the printouts lawmakers received added up.

Rep. Donna Sweany is chair of the House Government Operations Committee, which piloted the iPad program before its wider adoption. She says lawmakers used $500 worth of paper every year – each.

With those number, legislators decided the cost of an iPad plus the $10 app they use to conduct business was worth it.

In recent years, the legislative session demanded somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 million printed pages. Stacked up, all those pages would be taller than the Empire State Building.

Sweany says the iPads aren’t just financially smart - they also save time.

When her committee was changing language in a bill, she said, “we’d have to wait for them to be printed to come to us if we made one word change before we could even vote on it.”

iPads have helped with stuff like that, but it’s easy to imagine some problems introducing iPads to a generation of lawmakers used to some more basic methods of managing their files.

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Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR
The copy center at the Vermont Statehouse stands empty. The office of Legislative Council is churning through fewer pages now that lawmakers have adapted iPads

“I mean I came here in the years when they would give you two plastic covers and a large shoestring,” Sweany said, “and every day, there on our desk would be a calendar of what we were going to be doing that day, the journal of what we did the day before, and all the new bills.”

They used the shoestrings to bind all those pages together between the two plastic covers. Sometimes the bound collections would be close to a foot thick. Now, all those documents can be sent straight to their iPads.

Last year, with the House of Representatives using iPads in committee and on the House floor, legislators used up about 10 percent less paper than usual.

Emmons, the chair of corrections and institutions, says the more advanced technology has presented challenges for some, but lawmakers get through them together. She compared her 11-person committee to a one-room schoolhouse.

“Some folks weren’t so acclimated to pick up an iPad,” she said. “But the person sitting next to them was way ahead of everybody else and really helped them along. So everybody was helping everyone.”

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Credit Angela Evancie / VPR
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VPR
Rep. Robert Forguites (D-Windsor 3-2) says he's still learning how to use his iPad. "Some folks weren't so acclimated to pick up an iPad," says Rep Alice Emmons. "But the person sitting next to them was way ahead of everybody else and really helped them along. So everybody was helping everyone."

And the effort paid off – last year, with the House of Representatives using iPads in committee and on the House floor, legislators used up about 10 percent less paper than usual.

But Sweany points out there’s a big barrier to more savings: The Senate doesn’t bring their iPads into the Senate chamber.

“Their rules doesn’t allow for them to have an iPad, a phone, or anything on their desks,” she said.

Senate Secretary John Bloomer is a strict enforcer of that rule. He said the Senate Rules Committee weighed in on the issue years ago and has stuck to their tradition.

“If there’s a debate, the Senate Rules Committee believes you should be listening,” Bloomer said. “You’re going to be voting for what’s right for the citizens of the state of Vermont or what you believe is right for the citizens of Vermont, and debate is supposed to be informing you. And if you’re doing something different, surfing the web, looking up on Facebook, whatever – then you’re not paying attention and you’re not doing a service to the citizens of the state of Vermont.”

That’s not an attitude that jives well with allowing technology capable of playing Angry Birds onto the Senate floor.

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