SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The South Dakota Legislature is taking a technological leap, outfitting several dozen lawmakers with iPads instead of computers and preparing to release its first app on the iTunes store.
For years, legislators have been provided with state laptops to track bills, take notes and communicate with constituents while in Pierre. Next year, at least 35 of them will be using Apple's popular tablet computer instead.
"It's a lot lighter, it's smaller, it's more efficient and easier to use," Sen. Deb Peters, R-Hartford, said of the iPads.
It's also more cost-effective, she said.
Last legislative session, Peters tested a state iPad to see where it would work as a computer replacement for lawmakers. Other than a few glitches with printing, she had no complaints. Additionally, some legislators used their own personal iPads instead of the laptops the state issued them.
That was enough of a signal for legislative leaders, who decided in June to convert 35 machines out of their usual 105 laptop order into iPads.
Not everyone was a big fan of moving to touch-screen tablets.
"We went with a more limited number of iPads just to kind of ease into it," said James Fry, executive director of the South Dakota Legislative Research Council.
All new legislators, and all legislators on the number-crunching Appropriations Committee, will be given the full laptops instead of iPads, though they can use their own machines if they want. In two years, legislative leaders will reassess the success or failure of the iPad experiment. That's when the lease will run out on the 70 laptops the Legislature is about to acquire.
The iPads were bought outright.
They'll probably end up costing the Legislature less money. The lease agreement for the laptops usually cost $1,000 per machine per year, including free service and repairs when computers broke. After two years, the Legislature had the option to buy the machines. That's what they did with the computers in use for the past several years.
It cost about $800 per machine to buy the iPads. That doesn't include a service contract, so any repairs or replacements will be extra expenses.
Lawmakers who do use the iPads will be encouraged to go completely paperless. Rep. Larry Lucas, D-Mission, chairman of the technology subcommittee of the Legislature's Executive Board, said the iPad should make paper printouts unnecessary.
"They shouldn't be printing off the bills when they go into committee," Lucas said. "They should be reading the bills on the iPads."
The software lawmakers use to track bills and committee assignments, called ACT, isn't available for iPads. So the Legislative Research Council had programmer Jesse Hiatt write an iPad app.
While the Legislature's website, legis.state.sd.us, features a bill-centric navigation, ACT is committee-centric.
If approved by Apple, the app will be released to the public for free on the iTunes App Store.
It's not targeted for the general public but will be available, Fry said.
"We're trying to make sure we make as much information available, at least as much as we have in the past, moreso if we can," he said. "As the technology allows us, we'll throw it out there and let people experiment."