South Dakota legislature considers replacing some laptops with iPads

RAPID CITY — This past legislative session, Rep. Kristin Conzet, R-District 32, passed on the state-issued HP laptop computer she could have gotten as a legislator in favor of using her own personal iPad to track legislation and communicate with constituents.

Now, more South Dakota lawmakers could be using Apple Inc.’s popular tablet computers, as the Legislature considers buying or leasing iPads for its own official use.

The laptops issued to legislators this past year are 2008 models. Normally, the Legislature leases new laptops every two years, but in 2010, it saved money by keeping the old computers.

This year, the Legislature is planning to buy or lease new computers, and many legislators say some of those computers should be iPads.

“There were a couple of legislators using their iPads individually last session. That caught on pretty quickly,” said Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, chairman of the Legislature’s computer technology subcommittee.

Conzet said the iPad was less complicated for her, a self-described “technology neophyte.”

“There was just a certain ease to it,” Conzet said. “It’s very compact. It went everywhere with me. If I needed to reference something, I just went right into my purse, and there’s my iPad.”

In past years, when Conzet used a laptop, she would still print out paper copies of about half of the bills and documents she dealt with. After switching to the iPad, she went completely paperless.

Instead of buying or leasing 108 Windows laptops this year, 20 or 30 of those could be iPads.

Buying iPads would cost about the same, or maybe even less, than traditional laptops.

“The iPad’s generally cheaper, depending on how many bells and whistles you put on,” said Jim Fry, director of the Legislative Research Council.

An iPad, along with a case and keyboard, would cost about $800 — what the Legislature paid per computer in 2008.

South Dakota isn’t alone in considering iPads for legislators. Pam Greenberg of the National Conference of State Legislatures said a majority of legislatures buy or lease laptops for their members. She said at least seven states have pilot programs to provide iPads to members.

Fry said the Legislature isn’t considering going all-iPad. Some members aren’t interested in Apple technology, while others — including members of the budget-making Appropriations committee — need the full power of a laptop.

The Legislature is still trying to resolve some technical difficulties, including a software update to allow legislators to print to Capitol printers. The LRC is also developing iPad versions of Windows software that legislators use to track committee assignments and bills.

Precise details have yet to be determined, including how much the iPads would cost, how many the Legislature will get and whether to lease or buy the equipment.

The Legislature typically spends between $80,000 and $100,000 per year on laptops for lawmakers, Fry said.

Since the laptop program took off, demand for printing has plummeted, but this hasn’t saved the state money. Despite cutting printing by two-thirds, printing costs have stayed the same after accounting for inflation. Fry said that is because using printers less doesn’t cut up-front costs for printing equipment.

Aside from the iPad vs. laptop decision, there is another option on the table: giving legislators a technology allowance to reimburse them for using their own equipment.

Lucas said this could save money and make legislators happy, but he said many legislators also worry it could send the wrong message to voters by paying cash instead of providing a tool.

But Lucas and Conzet said it is important to do something to keep legislators plugged in.

“We must move forward,” Conzet said. “To be quite honest, in the state of South Dakota, legislators have very basic needs. We don’t take extravagant trips. But what we do need is the ability to have the Internet and the ability to communicate with our constituents at our fingertips.”

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