Nearly 50 percent of American households have access to the Internet, and that number is continually growing, the Commerce Department reports. To keep up with the demands of citizens accustomed to instant, free information at the click of a mouse, state legislatures have set up departments, committees and task forces to address the use of the Internet and help them use it effectively.
All 50 states have legislative Web sites that put citizens in touch with their legislators and state government. The legislative sites, which are separate from the official state sites, feature texts or summaries of bills and also have contact information for state senators and representatives.
Most of the sites provide information in searchable databases, and many allow users to search for bills with keywords, bill text, sponsor or status. Many sites also offer updates on the legislature's actions, in most cases daily.
They also link users to other government agencies.
"The sites are an extension of the relationship between constituents and the legislature. They strengthen the relationship and bring more accountability to the legislature." said Nebraska Information Officer Tracy McKay
One of the best legislative sites is California's ( http://www.state.ca.us/s/govt/legisca.html ).
Its homepage routes visitors to a wealth of information about the California state Senate and state Assembly and also includes links to local government and state courts. On the state senate and general assembly pages, political buffs and interested citizens can read about that day's legislative actions, get biographical and contact information about the legislators and hear audio clips of floor debate.
Another perk is the online tour of the sprawling state capitol. A fun part of the site is "kids' stuff," (part of the Assembly's page) which lets "kids of all ages" play a game that creates a new state law. The game clearly shows the steps a bill goes through to become law, and it's educational for anyone.
Other top Web sites are maintained by the South Carolina, South Dakota and Hawaii legislatures. These sites have user-friendly bill searches that make it easy to find bills and their status with nothing more than a subject or keyword.
South Carolina's Web site ( http://www.lpitr.state.sc.us ) was erected in 1995, but has bills archived back to 1993 and statutes from 1985. During sessions, it averages 53,000 hits each day. Many users are drawn to the site because besides offering legislative information, it contains all reports submitted to the General Assembly, Legislative Audit Council Reports, a kids' page used heavily by libraries and schools and other state government information.
South Dakota's legislative Web page ( http://www.state.sd.us/state/legis/lrc.htm ) provides a complete look at the state's bills and legislative actions. The site categorizes bills by date introduced, subject and status, and gives their histories and texts. The state also offers a free online bill tracking service and detailed information about meetings and other political activities conducted by members when they are not in session.
Hawaii's cheerful Web page ( http://www.state.hi.us/icsd/leg/leg.html ) not only has lots of pictures of scenic state landmarks, but also an excellent search capacity. Users can search the entire site or just bills and resolutions pertaining to a given topic. The information is given so clearly and the site architecture is so well-designed that even a rank novice can navigate through the pages.
Other top-notch legislative Web sites are maintained by Maine, Nebraska, Indiana, Alabama, Florida and North Carolina.
The trend toward online government started in the early '90s, even before software that made it easy to go online and a graphics-rich format brought the explosion of the World Wide Web.
Today, anyone with a modem-equipped computer can connect with state policy makers as they surf the 'net.
While a few of the best and worst legislative Web sites stand out from the crowd, the sites are surprisingly similar in quality and usefulness. They are well-maintained (most are updated daily during sessions) and offer the public a quick way to become informed about the actions of their state legislature.
One incentive for legislatures to expand their online services is the money it saves. With the general public, state agencies and lobbyists able to print or download legislation and other documents from the Internet, printing costs are reduced considerably.
Online legislative resources have "made a staggering difference" in the way the public interacts with state government, said Leslie Vang, the director of South Carolina's Legislative Printing and Information Technology Resources, the agency responsible for the state's main legislative Web site
"Now anyone in the state can pick up information at their own convenience. Prior to the Web, they had to drive to Columbia, park at the statehouse and pick up a hard copy of the bill or legislation," she said.
But not everyone is ready to convert completely to online government. In states like Nebraska, Alabama and North Carolina, where many citizens still don't have access to the Internet and others don't trust the information they find there, legislatures have seen little reduction in the printing of hard copies.
Some states, like North Carolina, do not consider online documents to be official or legally recognized. For legal purposes, hard copies are still necessary.
And some legislative Web sites are still too new to create a visible change. Hawaii only put its bills online this year.
The public's new access to information has put a burden on legislators, who are now dealing with more informed constituents and yet another communications outlet.
"It's made it more difficult for everyone. More difficult, but better " said Sean Johnson, who initiated Florida's legislative site.
Many of the legislative Web sites, like South Dakota's, arose from a need to create an efficient computer system within the government. The legislative staff needed an easy way to access bills and journals, and the public was demanding immediate and inexpensive information.
A site that could serve both the public and the legislators' needs emerged, and now the South Dakota legislature's internal system, confusing and time-consuming in comparison with the public Web site, is almost never used.
The public's reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. In Nebraska, the number of hits on the legislative site are at triple the pace of last year, when the site got nearly five million hits. In North Carolina, site hits have increased also. In 1996, the legislative site averaged 25,000 hits each month. Now they average 75,000 a month, said a spokesperson for the legislature.
The legislative sites are constantly being upgraded. As elected officials and legislation change, so does information available on the Internet. And states are fine-tuning the legislative sites to make them even more user-friendly.
The South Dakota legislature plans to allow each user to tailor information on its Web site into a form that is most useful, in effect creating a customized Web site for every citizen who takes advantage of the service.
Florida lawmakers are striving to make the information on their site as close to real time as possible. Alabama is working on a more powerful information retrieval system. Hawaii is implementing a service that sends hearing notices via e-mail. And South Carolina, which now provides audio coverage of state House and Senate sessions on the Internet, will begin streaming television pictures next year.