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Byrd picks BlackBerry for House e-mail

The speaker unveils plans to offer one of the hand-held devices to each member at taxpayer expense.

Published September 5, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - House Speaker Johnnie Byrd has come up with another way to modernize political communication at taxpayer expense: hand-held e-mail devices for all 120 House members.

Byrd even has a model picked out. It's the BlackBerry 6510, capable of instant two-way e-mail communication and adaptable to cell phones.

He made a pitch for the device in a recent e-mail to House members.

"Knowing the fast pace and heavy demands on your time resulting from being a "part-time legislator,' I have made arrangements to offer each member a BlackBerry 6510," Byrd wrote on Aug. 19. "With this device your staff can communicate with you anywhere, any time, without the interruption of a cell phone call."

In an interview, Byrd noted he spent $2-million less than the House budgeted and returned the money to the state treasury.

He said the BlackBerry devices would be purchased within the existing budget and defended the venture as a technological convenience many lawmakers would like.

"We have a budget, and we'll live within that budget," Byrd said. "We really are fiscal conservatives."

Neither the Senate nor the governor has considered purchasing hand-held e-mail devices with public money.

"No one in the Senate has made that suggestion, nor should they," said Senate President Jim King, R-Jacksonville.

Gov. Jeb Bush uses a BlackBerry while traveling, but he pays for the device. "No state dollars are used for the governor's BlackBerry," spokeswoman Alia Faraj said.

Byrd's interest in the tiny, trendy gadget is the latest example of his willingness to spend public money on communication.

He expanded the House public relations office from two to 13 staff members, including a full-time video producer. He used the House Web site to build a database of voters' e-mail addresses and did mass mailings to voters, focusing on his positions on abortion and education.

All the while, the Plant City Republican and U.S. Senate candidate has emphasized the virtues of fiscal restraint.

In the e-mail, Byrd said the House would buy the device, software and licensing fees, but each lawmaker would have to pay a monthly $50 fee for e-mail service. The charge could be passed onto taxpayers through each lawmaker's district expense account.

The total cost has not been determined. The model Byrd cited sells for a government rate of $300.

The House plans to seek proposals from competing vendors to get the best possible price, and no decisions have been made, Byrd's spokeswoman, Nicole deLara, said Thursday.

Lawmakers struggled through a series of overtime sessions this year and adopted a state budget that led to layoffs of teacher aides and cuts in prison rehabilitation and juvenile treatment programs.

About half the House members said they wanta BlackBerry: 56 out of 119 (one seat is vacant). Most Tampa Bay area lawmakers wanted them. Eight others rejected the offer and most others did not reply.

House members already have cell phones and laptops with Internet access in their offices and on the floor during sessions. They can charge all legislative-related cellular calls to the state.

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, declined Byrd's offer. "It's going to be too much of a mix between legislative and personal affairs," Ryan said. "If I was to acquire one of those, I would go ahead and pay for it myself."

Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, called the gadget a toy and said he wanted one.

"The question is, what do I do with it?" Greenstein said. "I've got my laptop with me most of the time."

Greenstein said he was concerned that a House filled with BlackBerries would make it even easier for BlackBerry-toting lobbyists to instantly advise lawmakers how to vote on bills or amendments.

"They could send out e-mails saying, "This is the amendment I warned you about,"' Greenstein said.

- Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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