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Legislature has improved sound, voting systems

Jackson — Upgrading the technology needed to run the Mississippi Legislature is no easy task. Budget woes aside, there are considerable obstacles to installing technology upgrades in one of the state’s most historically significant buildings, the Mississippi Capitol.

“I love coming to work here every day,” said Don Richardson, clerk of the Mississippi House of Representatives. “You can’t imagine a more beautiful work environment. But remember, the Capitol was built in 1903. Even when the last major renovation was done in 1982, that was before cell phones, laptops and even PCs. The wiring in the building doesn’t lend itself to a lot of innovative technology. So a lot of things we still have to do the old-fashioned way. That is the tradeoff of working in the most beautiful building in the state.”

An example of the challenges is that another computer is needed in the House bill status area. But there is no place to plug it in.

“I have a couple of new digital message boards to let the public know more about what is going on in chamber,” Richardson said. “But now we are on stumped what to do with them because we don’t have an outlet. When facing these kinds of challenges, we learn to adapt. We try to brainstorm and come up with ideas to make it work without damaging the historical integrity of the building. That is a challenge.”

If the Legislature’s primary goal was to be cost efficient, it probably wouldn’t be housed in the historic structure. But no one is advocating moving out of the building that has such a rich tradition.

The technology of the Legislature also lags behind for another reason: funding constraints. Richardson said the laptops used extensively by House members are old and very slow.

“We are woefully behind in technological advances for members and staff,” Richardson said. “If this was a private business, you probably would have replaced the laptops a couple of years ago. But it takes a lot of money to replace laptops for 122 people. We’re talking about a half-million dollars to install new equipment. Everything we have to do, we have to do in terms of at least 150 including the 122 House members and staff.”

On the plus side, every year more and more legislators become computer literate. Richardson said in particular the younger legislators use their computers a lot. The laptops are used to go online to access bills, get information about the status of bills and to communicate with other legislators and constituents.

One improvement in the House chamber this year is that an old lighted push button voting board that was probably 30 years old has been replaced with a lighted, digital board. The new board was needed after it became impossible to buy replacement parts for the old board.

Richardson said that using a roll call vote like the one required in the Senate doesn’t work in the House.

“We found this summer with the special session that we just couldn’t operate that way with the size of the House,” Richardson said. “Imagine if you were teaching calling roll with 122 kids for every single thing you did. During last regular session, we would hold our breath every time the machine would need a new part. Then when parts became unavailable, we had to do everything manually.”

Joseph Ammerman, communications director for the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, said the Senate is required to use a roll call vote.

“If we had 122 senators, we would probably be using a voting system, too,” Ammerman said.

The Senate will have new audio-visual support for the current session. Until recently, the Senate has been using an overhead projector to display amendments to bills or other information members want to share, such as charts or graphs. The old AV system was about 30 years old, and the sound system had gotten in such bad shape that often things had to be repeated. The sound system is being manufactured by Peavey Electronics.

The new video system will use 61-inch plasma screen televisions to display information. When the Senate is not in session, it will scroll information regarding times and places for committee meetings.
Senators will have new microphones on their desk this session.

“We had a real problem with sound in that chamber,” Ammerman said. “With a domed ceiling, you can imagine. We have had sound problems since the 1970s. We think the new system will make the work go a lot smoother. People will see and hear what happens the first time around, so it won’t have to be repeated. Also, people used to have to walk up front to see the projectors. We think the new system will make things go smoother.”

The Mississippi Department of Archives and History closely supervises changes to the Capitol required for technology upgrades. In the case of the sound system upgrade, all the new wiring had to be put into existing conduit.

“That makes the project more difficult and expensive,” Ammerman said.

He agrees that the laptop computers used by the senators could use replacement. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

“These laptops we have now are three or four years old, and the ones before that were much older,” Ammerman said. “We probably waited too long last time to replace them. Laptops get outdated in two or three years time. These laptops really get used by the senators. They go back and forth from here to home or hotel rooms. But I don’t think we have anything going on to replace them.”

The Capitol has wireless access to the Internet.
While it may seem like a lot is being done this year to improve the technology at the Legislature, other states are doing more.

“When you look at legislatures in other states, we are pretty far behind most every other state I have been to,” Ammerman said.

Ocean Springs-based freelance journalist Becky Gillette writers regularly for the Mississippi Business Journal. Contact her via e-mail at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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