Laptops become a question of ethics in Missouri Senate

Monday, February 2, 2009 | 8:39 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Extended debate blocked the computer age from reaching the Missouri Senate chamber for another year.

Senate Majority Floor Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, put forth a resolution that would allow senators to bring laptops into the Senate chamber. Engler, who has voted both for and against similar motions in the past, ended debate on the resolution Monday and said he does not intend at this time to bring it forward again.

At the center of the debate was the question of what was better: senators in the chamber who are on the computer and not necessarily paying attention or senators who leave the chamber to conduct business electronically and therefore miss debate.

Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, said he thought computers are not appropriate in the Senate because they could be used for non-Senate business.

"... I'd never use (a computer) in a bathtub where I'd electrocute myself, Senator, because there's a time and a place for everything," Nodler said during debate. "The bathtub is not the place for a computer and neither is the Senate chamber."

Other senators said they do not see a problem with laptop use because senators take care of Senate business during their "off hours."

"Let me say to my colleagues who have to do something other than be a state senator to support a family that it is my humble opinion — and just my opinion — that you are not being unethical if you struggle to maintain two jobs, to be down here and support a family, that when you're back home at midnight answering constituent e-mails ... I don't think it's unethical at all for you to receive a message that relates to your business," said Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Jackson County.

Beyond the issue of distractions, opponents of laptops in the chamber said they are concerned with lobbyists being able to directly connect with legislators.

The other question to be considered was "the integrity of the debate itself," Nodler said. "In other words, are the thoughts being expressed the thoughts of the senators elected by the people to come here to engage in a competition of ideas in honest, open debate? Or are they talking heads reading phrases fed to them by the lobbyists in the gallery or out in the hallway, who are interposing themselves into this process?"

Currently, state House of Representatives rules allow computers and other electronic devices, and Senate rules allow hand-held devices such as Blackberries and cell phones.

Some opponents of computers in the chamber, such as Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, would also like to ban the use of hand-held devices in the Senate chamber.

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