July/August Trends

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Trends and Transitions: July/August 2009

Cost Savings Through IT

States are looking at ways to reduce spending on information technology without sacrificing service to citizens or the business of government. Current IT spending in the states is estimated at $35 billion to $40 billion, typically about 1.5 percent of state budgets.

A recent survey conducted by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers found that state chief information officers were pursuing two key ways to save money: consolidating and sharing services.

West Virginia, for example, em-barked on a cost savings plan four years ago. Kyle Schafer, chief information officer for the governor’s Office of Technology, reports that consolidation and standardization have reduced the cost per personal computer from more than $900 to a little more than $400. By centralizing IT organizations and e-mail domains, renegotiating and standardizing contracts, and converging voice, data and video over a single circuit, West Virginia’s annual IT spending has been reduced from $51 million four years ago to $43 million today.

Michigan, one of the first states to pursue consolidation, reduced the state’s 25 data centers to three and combined disparate e-mail systems. Missouri recently consolidated e-mail service and moved people and equipment under a single IT division, saving the state millions. Kansas also standardized IT tools to increase productivity. California, which has a $3 billion IT budget, is embarking on a plan projected to save $1.5 billion over the next five years that includes consolidation of data centers, servers, networks and software contracts.

IT experts, however, advise against major cuts that would diminish IT security, business continuity and disaster recovery. They say it is important to continue a normal aging program for equipment: If states wait until equipment is old and broken, it will be more costly in the long run to replace than it would be to continue routine upgrades.

No Ring Tones in Chambers

As lawmakers consider prohibiting the use of cell phones while driving, some legislators already are under a cell phone ban—in the capitol. More and more legislative assemblies are prohibiting legislators from using electronic devices, most often cell phones, while on the floor.

Some parliamentary practitioners believe that using electronic devices on the floor diverts members from conducting legislative business. In addition, some think prohibiting the use of electronic devices prevents outside influences during debate and voting, preserves decorum, and encourages respect for the legislative institution and its work.

More than half of the 99 legislative chambers, by chamber rule, restrict the use of electronic devices in some form.

  • Thirty-eight chambers prohibit the use of cell phones on the floor.
  • Nine of those 38 also prohibit the use of other electronic devices, such as computers, cameras or recording devices.
  • Nine other chambers allow cell phones to be used on the floor only if they are turned to a “non-audible mode.”
  • Eight chambers allow electronic devices on the floor, but prohibit the use of cell phones in committee meetings or
  • the gallery.

 The Vexting Issue of 'Sexting'

Hundreds of news stories in the past few months have focused attention on teens who are “sexting”—sending nude or semi-nude photos to one another by cell phone. School officials and police have investigated dozens of incidents, and prosecutors in at least six states have considered whether kids who send these messages, sometimes by mutual consent, should be charged under child pornography laws.

One 18-year-old student in Florida was charged after he sent nude photos of his 16-year-old girlfriend, following a fight, to her friends and family. He was sentenced to five years’ probation and is now a registered sex offender.
Sexting isn’t limited just to kids, however. Sexual predators are using cell phones to contact children, raising concerns about whether state laws are adequate. Oregon’s online luring law did not cover text messaging, so prosecutors were unable to bring criminal charges against a teacher who sent illicit text messages to a student.

Lawmakers in at least nine states have introduced legislation this year aimed at deterring teens from sexting or preventing legal loopholes that would allow sexual predators to escape prosecution.

In Utah, lawmakers passed legislation that sets misdemeanor charges for children age 17 and under who distribute pornographic material. Two bills in Ohio also would create a misdemeanor crime for minors convicted of sexting. A similar bill in Missouri failed.

Nebraska enacted new child pornography provisions that allow an affirmative defense for minors who possess sexually explicit images of children age 15 and older, as long as the images are of only one child, were taken without coercion, and were not forwarded to anyone else.

In Vermont legislation passed this year, minors charged with sexting would be dealt with in juvenile court rather than being subject to sexual exploitation laws and sex offender registration requirements. Sexual predators who use sexting to contact children will face charges under new laws in Nebraska and Colorado, and also in Oregon if new provisions in the state’s child luring law are enacted. New Jersey has introduced similar legislation. Indiana and Virginia have ordered studies of this new issue, which most lawmakers—and parents—could not have conceived of just a few years ago.


Newer Roads for Older Folks

By 2025, a quarter of Americans will be over age 65. Beyond the obvious Medicare and Social Security concerns, this fact is also causing challenges for states struggling to meet the transportation needs of older citizens. A recent report from AARP highlights the need to start planning transportation systems that provide options for those without cars or the ability to drive. This issue affects more than just older citizens, as one-third of all Americans don’t have consistent access to a car. AARP found that current sidewalks, public transit and bike routes are difficult for many older Americans to use.

“Complete streets” policies try to ensure the needs of all users—pedestrians, bicyclists, seniors, children, transit users—when planning the transportation system. For older people this can mean building pedestrian medians to provide a safe stopping place in the middle of a wide road; installing pedestrian countdown signals that show how much time is left to cross; and ensuring transit systems have street-level access to eliminate the need to climb steps.

California, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia have complete streets policies. And Connecticut, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Texas, Washington and West Virginia have considered bills to strengthen or adopt such policies this year. Yet even in states with these policies, explicit attention to issues affecting seniors is often lacking, says AARP. A nationwide survey of transportation planners found that only about one-third have started integrating the needs of older users.

Many of these transportation concerns go along with conversations to create “livable communities,” which can help older Americans continue living independently by having medical, retail and governmental services available within walking distance or a bus ride.

Lawmakers Address Autism

As many as 560,000 people under age 21 (one in 150 8-year-olds) have autism. Autism spectrum disorders are a group of developmental disabilities characterized by significant impairments in social interaction and communication, which usually begin before age 3. Although there is no cure, early treatment can significantly improve the symptoms.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism increases, so does the debate in state legislatures about the responsibilities of school systems, health insurers or others in providing care and treatment.

In legislative sessions so far this year, almost 500 bills have been considered in 47 states and Puerto Rico to address a broad range of autism issues, such as education, professional training, study commissions, financing, health services and screening. As of early June, almost 60 bills had been enacted in 25 states and Puerto Rico.

Lawmakers in Alabama, Arkansas, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota and North Dakota created a task force, council or commission to study the issues. New funds in Oklahoma will establish an early behavioral intervention program for children with autism. Texas established a center to coordinate resources for people with autism and their families. Maine now requires behavior analysts to be reimbursed under MaineCare. Illinois now requires health coverage for certain services for children with congenital, genetic or other disorders, including autism. And Colorado, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico now require health insurers to cover the treatment of autism.

Congress passed the Combating Autism Act in 2006, which provides almost $1 billion over five years for research, screening, treatment and education. The act also established an advisory committee to develop a strategic plan for research. This January, the committee released its first recommendations for autism research. The federal Autism Treatment Acceleration Act of 2009, currently in committee, would improve treatment, support, services
and research for people with autism and their families.