Lawmakers restrict text messages

Posted Jan. 27, 2009, at 9:52 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Where state government goes, technology is not far behind: Maine is joining other states in passing rules to restrict text messages from electronic devices, hoping to stop lobbyists from calling signals from the legislative sidelines.

Rules adopted by the Maine House of Representatives reflect a growing trend in statehouses across the country, which are casting a wary eye on electronic devices.

The House of Representatives took up the issue after some lawmakers observed lobbyists sending messages from their laptops and hand-held devices from the gallery to the floor while representatives were debating a bill dealing with a state insurance program.

Rep. Herb Adams, D-Portland, recalled another example during a committee session, when he watched a lobbyist write on his computer screen, “Ask him THIS ONE!”

Adams, who pushed for the rules, said he has no problem with communications between a legislator and member of the public, lobbyist or not. But BlackBerrys, laptops and other devices raise new issues about outside influences in lawmaking, he said.

“It’s many magnitudes different than sending in a note or writing a letter or being lobbied face-to-face in the hall,” said Adams. “Clearly you are well over the line if lobbyists are writing your speeches in the House or putting other members on the spot.”

While those cases may seem egregious to some, others see little difference between electronic messaging and the old school method of simply passing a note. A former state representative who is now Maine’s secretary of state, Matthew Dunlap, said the big difference is that the new technology “is a more time-effective mecha-nism for sharing information about a bill.”

Charles Soltan, who lobbies in Augusta, said most lobbyists find face-to-face contact with lawmakers more effective than pecking on BlackBerrys anyway.

“I rarely ever see it or notice it because there are more appropriate and direct ways to communicate with legislators prior to floor debate,” said Soltan. “And many of them don’t have electronic devices.”

The National Conference of State Legislatures is aware of the growing sensitivity in statehouses to electronic communications with members, especially during sessions. Many have passed rules regulating the use of electronic devices, but they are broadly worded, and like Maine’s, do not specifically target text messaging or lob-byists, said member Brenda Erickson.

Colorado barred text messages in the House and Senate chambers, and West Virginia prohibited House members from receiving electronic messages during floor debate on pending legislation. As of 2007, more than 30 states in some way had restricted the use of electronic devices, the national conference said.

In Maine, the new rules quietly passed last week with neither debate nor objection, two years after an initial effort was cast aside and left to die. The rules don’t specifically mention “text messages” or “lobbyists,” but there’s no doubt about the message.

One of the new rules requires that “personal electronic communications devices” be turned off during joint House-Senate conventions — or at any time determined by the House speaker.

The other, more sweeping rule says that during House sessions, members must restrict the use of all personal electronic communication devices to personal business and business of the House, and “exercise high standards of discretion, conduct and decorum.”

In other words, banter with lobbyists — along with solitaire, e-shopping, joke-swapping — are discouraged.

Neither rule applies to the Senate, which makes its own rules.

When it comes to technology, it cuts both ways.

On Tuesday, the footprint of technology grew larger in Maine’s Capitol as the House inaugurated a new paperless process for delivering legislative documents to members. Those who have laptops will be able to follow the session’s agenda as it scrolls by and access bills and amendments as they come up for action.

The system also will provide cues for specific actions from the floor, which is expected to be a help to newer members in a state that has eight-year term limits.

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