Web app tracks N. Dakota lawmaking

LAWS incorporates proposed amendments into the text of the bill, so that lawmakers can see the language of the amendments in the context of the legislation.

'Rep. Rick Berg

Will Kincaid

During late-night debates or heated committee hearings, state legislators in North Dakota can use a new system to keep track of the latest bill amendments.

The browser-based system, called the Legislative Automated Work Station, also gives the public a chance to read pending bills without traveling to the state capitol in Bismarck.

The North Dakota Legislative Assembly meets only once every two years, with its next session scheduled for January 2005.

The legislature handles 1,000 to 1,200 bills in a three-month session, said Rep. Rick Berg, the House majority leader.

Over the last decade, state IT officials have phased in LAWS for both houses of the legislature, and every year more legislators use notebook PCs, Berg said.

'I just can't imagine us going back to anything else,' he said.

LAWS incorporates proposed amendments into the text of the bill, so that lawmakers can see the language of the amendments in the context of the legislation, Berg said.

Amendments generally originate in one of the legislative committees. Without LAWS, before the full chamber got to vote on the amendments, there would be a day's delay while the amendments were printed and inserted as pieces of different-colored paper sticking out of the bill books, Berg said. Now the bill drafts appear quickly in Portable Document Format with the text of the amendments underlined.

The legislature has always had a bill room where citizens can view drafts of pending legislation, Berg said. But its staff never quite knew how many copies of each bill to print.

'You never know what bill or issue is going to have high public interest,' Berg said.

Making the legislative texts available online, both at the Capitol and at www.state.nd.us/lr/assembly, eliminates a lot of confusion and saves a lot of printing costs, Berg said.

The system provides the public with the most accurate and up-to-date information, Berg said. The history of each bill is documented online as well.

Legislators are allowed to bring their notebook computers onto the floor. 'In session, that is our tool,' Berg said. The assembly chambers and most of the committees have LAN connections for the PCs.

Legislators can quickly search for and identify their colleagues' positions on each bill.

LAWS was built with applications from Software AG Inc. USA of Reston, Va., including the EntireX Communicator data integration tool.

Before the legislature started using LAWS, it employed Software AG's Adabas database to store legislation and other applications built with the company's natural language to access and manage the legislation.

The Legislative Assembly has been using that software for two decades, said Dean Glatt, division director of computer systems for the North Dakota IT department.

'They've been our workhorse systems for most of the 1980s and 1990s,' said Eugene Roach, a database analyst with the state government IT department.

Adabas still powers the back end of LAWS, said Bill Ruh, Software AG's chief technical officer. The North Dakota software development team built the front end and Web-enabled the business logic.

Software AG's EntireX Communicator product connects the legacy back-end mainframe systems to the Web. 'It glues the front end to all the back ends,' Ruh said.

The Legislative Assembly has been using IBM Corp. mainframes for years and now hosts LAWS on an IBM z800 server, Glatt said.

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