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As debate numbs, Senate laptops hum

Some senators check stocks, others the weather. More and more the Internet offers respite from the drone of government.

By WILLIAM YARDLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 20, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- Debate on the Senate floor was tense Wednesday: For two hours a senator pressed her colleagues to support a bill banning "partial-birth" abortions. It seemed everyone had a point to make.

But Sen. W.D. Childers never said a word. Planted at his desk in the chamber, Childers was busy at his laptop, engaged in a different dialogue: He was surfing eBay, the online auction house.

The 66-year-old Pensacola Republican, the dean of the Senate enduring his 30th and final legislative session, was clicking for bargains on baseball cards.

"A high-tech redneck, that's W.D.," is the way Brandon Sen. Tom Lee put it.

Childers, who said he was checking out Mickey Mantle cards just for fun, disagrees with the characterization: "I'm not a computer junkie. No, no. I spend very little time on the computer."

But he often can be seen online.

Wednesday, he helped Sen. Steven Geller, a Hallandale Democrat, search for fountain pens. Geller, he said, collects them. Childers said he also browsed the MSNBC site, scrolling through tidbits on presidential history.

The Senate veteran is not the lone lawmaker to break for the information superhighway when shaping state law grows tedious. Senate President Toni Jennings has noticed the trend, which started when senators first gained Internet access three years ago.

"Electronic mail, Internet access, facsimile machines and Suncom telephone lines are provided for official Senate business only," a Jennings aide, Kathleen Teague, wrote to lawmakers and staff members in February. The letter followed an initial note sent in December.

Apparently the warnings about using equipment bought with taxpayer money for personal reasons, and doing so on taxpayer time, have had little effect.

In recent weeks, as bills have been debated and statutes rewritten, Sen. Mandy Dawson, a Democrat from Fort Lauderdale, shopped for outfits at an online boutique. Sen. Burt Saunders, a Republican from Naples, browsed his hometown paper. And Sen. Jim King of Jacksonville confessed he and others keep their eye on the changing weather and the more ominous undulations of the stock market.

"Last week, there were more than a few people who kept coming back and saying, "It's down another 30 points,' " King said.

Many Senators exchange e-mail with constituents from the floor. "I think it's a sign of the future," King said. "Ultimately you're going to have interactivity while you're in debate. I don't think anybody abuses it. It used to be we were not connected to anything. We could only talk amongst ourselves."

Even in the pre-Internet age, it was not uncommon for Senate presidents to occasionally instruct lawmakers to pay attention to the ongoing debate. But even to this day some lawmakers spend little time at their desks when debate bogs down. They work the floor, take breaks in the lounge and sometimes step out to the rotunda to meet with lobbyists or give interviews.

In the House, there is no Internet access at all. The options there are more traditional for members who stay put: listen, read bills or amendments, flip through press clips, crack jokes with colleagues and try to win their vote for your bill.

House Speaker John Thrasher "strongly felt the members needed to be focused on the debate, not checking on stock prices or checking out what the latest contraption is being offered on eBay," spokeswoman Katie Baur said. "We have 120 members, and it is important that all of them are focused."

Of course, House members also stray from the floor. "But when they are in there," Baur quipped, "they're hanging on every pearl that falls from the speaker's lips."

Gov. Jeb Bush has been called the "e-governor" for his fascination with the Internet. He has been called "King Jeb" for his power over the Legislature. But he has not influenced everyone.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Palm Harbor Republican who serves as majority leader, is too busy courting votes to get online. "I'm not wired," he said.

Latvala did recall seeing a senator, one who has since left office and who Latvala would not name, actually trading stocks on the Senate floor last year. And he has seen Childers on eBay.

"I've seen him doing that, too, but I've also seen him reading e-mails from his district," Latvala said. "We've got a tremendous amount of work here, and senators might get distracted, especially when you're on your floor for eight hours."

Childers said taxpayers should not worry: "Most everybody out there does it a little. You check the weather, (but) sitting right there where the debate is, you can't miss anything."

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