Anytime there’s an election, some people are happy and some are let down. However, the results of one election this year put us squarely in the “happy” column. The people of New York State passed Proposition 2, a measure to allow the New York Legislature to go paperless, by 77 percent.

As you may recall from an earlier piece on New York’s legislative paperless movement, the proposition had to be approved by two separate Legislatures (2011 and 2013), as well as the people of New York.  While other legislative bodies, ranging from West Virginia to Hawaii, have made the switch to paperless without such an arduous procedure, New York actually had to amend its Constitution because of language in it. A requirement dating back to 1938 specified that bills had to be "printed and upon the desks" of lawmakers for three days before they could be passed, explains the Associated Press.

The proposition established three requirements:

  1. The 213 legislators had to be able to review the electronically sent bill at their desks
  2. Legislators had to be able to print the bill if they wanted to
  3. The bill could not be changed electronically without leaving a record of the changes

The move could save up to $53 million a year—$13 million for printing and $40 million for disposing of the unneeded copies, according to amendment supporter Assemblyman James Tedisco (R-Schenectady). Just as an example, the Legislature introduced 18,000 bills this year.

The measure was not exactly controversial, notes Lucas Willard of public radio station WAMC. The online voter guide of the League of Women Voters noted that it knew of no organizations or opinions opposing the amendment, and when it was voted upon by the Legislature, it received only a single, symbolic vote in opposition. “Whether the bill is on paper in a readable form, or online in a readable form, the point is it needs to be in a form where legislators and staff actually read the bills,” said Assemblywoman Shelley Mayer (D-Yonkers). “The fact is the paper on our desk in the Assembly is not in readable form, and that’s a very valid complaint. But I always am concerned as we move to a more paperless system that there could be a tendency to be less mindful that the words on the page really mean something.”

Okay, not absolutely everyone was in favor of the measure; New York’s paper industry had an opposing view point and International Paper pointed out the negative economic consequences on New York’s paper industry. International Paper’s mill in Ticonderoga, New York employs 615 workers and 2,500 workers are employed in the Warren County region.

The AP also expressed some tongue-in-cheek concern that legislators with electronic devices might not necessarily keep their minds on their job. For instance, Connecticut legislators were recently caught playing solitaire during floor debate, and a Florida legislator was caught viewing something else. (He claimed it was sent to him in email.)

So what now? Legislative staff did not want to go into detail to the AP about how the change would actually be implemented, and it’s possible that the technology, whatever it will be, won’t be implemented in time for the January legislative session, a legislative spokesman said. Assemblyman Tedisco said it was likely that legislators would get keyboards and tablets for carrying around legislation, but didn’t have an estimate of how much it would cost or when it would happen. (Just as a data point, the South Dakota Legislature typically budgets from $80,000 to $100,000 for laptops for its 108 legislators.)

There's no guarantee that these newly digitized bills will be any more useful than the paper versions, but at least fewer would-be laws will end up in landfills.

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