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Senators' laptops the Apple of their ayes
[January 11, 2009]

Senators' laptops the Apple of their ayes

(Omaha World-Herald (NE) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Jan. 11--LINCOLN -- Does size really matter?

Issues of size versus extra cost have been raised about the purchase of new laptop computers for Nebraska state senators -- although the purchase has plenty of defenders within the Capitol.

About 70 new Apple MacBook Air computers were purchased this session for state legislators at a cost of $1,524 each.

The aluminum-encased laptops, which can fit inside a 10-by-13-inch Manila envelope, are billed as the "world's thinnest" notebook computers.

They weigh in at a svelte 3 pounds -- 5 pounds less than the laptops they replaced -- and are 0.75 of an inch thick.

A more plastic-laced Apple laptop, the MacBook, retails for about $500 less -- $999. The MacBook is a chubbier 4.5 pounds and 0.95 of an inch thick.

At least one state senator, Tony Fulton of Lincoln, has questioned the purchase, saying the Legislature could have managed with less than "designer laptops," particularly during these tough economic times.

The state might have been able to buy laptops for $400 to $500 each, said Fulton, an engineer.

"The decision was made with proper authority, and I'll accept it," he said, "but I don't like it."

Three past and present legislators, and the assistant clerk of the Legislature who recommended the lighter laptops, defended the purchase.

They pointed out that Fulton sits on the Appropriations Committee, which authorized the purchase.

Fulton said that although he approved an appropriation for renovating the legislative chambers, which included the laptop purchase, committee members were not given details about the computers being purchased.

State Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah lauded the MacBook Air's added mobility and ease of use.

"They're great," Rogert said. "It fits inside my jacket."

Legislators deserve quality equipment, said Rogert, who was among about 10 lawmakers who tested the laptops before the purchase.

Dick Brown, assistant clerk of the Legislature, said his office reviewed a handful of other laptop models, ranging in price from $1,100 to $2,200, to replace the Fujitsu Lifebook laptops purchased four years ago.

When a MacBook Air was provided to his office for a trial run last summer, Brown said, "We stopped looking."

"The primary reasons were portability and weight," he said.

Senators carry their laptops home, to their offices and into the legislative chambers, where they use them to display the text of bills and amendments. At least a couple of senators in past years asked legislative pages to carry the clunkier laptops.

Brown said the advent of laptops in the Legislature 12 years ago has dramatically reduced the cost of copying documents.

From 1989 to 2008, annual copy expenses dropped from $306,509 to $178,983, according to the Clerk's Office. The office orders 400 copies of each bill now, down from about 1,200 pre-laptop.

The assistant clerk said he negotiated a discount for the equipment, from $1,799 per unit to $1,524. The purchase was approved by the Legislature's executive board and reviewed by the Department of Administrative Services.

Brown said the final price was $1 less per unit than the old Fujitsus, whose warranties have expired. Those machines have been delegated to legislative staffers.

The new laptops are "not the cheapest computers on the market, and they're not the most expensive," Brown said, adding that he hopes to get five years' use out of the new MacBook Airs.

Former State Sen. Pat Engel of South Sioux City was Executive Board chairman when it approved the laptop purchase last year.

"I think you can always buy something cheaper, but you get what you pay for," said Engel. "I'm certainly not a computer guru, so I rely on those who are."

Engel, who left because of term limits after 15 years in Lincoln, said the laptops' light weight and mobility were selling points, as was the discount. He added that past requests to provide each senator with two laptops have been rejected.

State Sen. John Wightman, the new Executive Board chairman, said he isn't second-guessing the decision.

Fulton said he cannot justify the laptops' additional cost, despite the lighter weight and smaller size, and also questions whether lawmakers reading text need the faster processing speed of the MacBook Airs.

"They're definitely impressive," he said, but the old laptops were portable enough.

Fulton said he hopes more details can be provided about future appropriations.

"We could have made do with a lot less," he said.

Of the 70 or so new laptops, 49 went to the senators, and Fulton said it was his understanding that of the rest, a few are spares in case lawmakers' laptops break down and the others are used by staffers.

Fulton, who initially said he would refuse a new laptop, said he's had to renege on that because his old laptop was not compatible with the new programming.

--Contact the writer: 402-473-9584, [email protected]

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