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Legislators' free gadgets cheat taxpayers

A decade or so ago, we were offered a "free" copy machine; we'd just be responsible for carrying the maintenance and repair contract.

The ink was barely dry on the agreement when the copy machine service guy moved in, an almost-roommate who everyone got to know by name. We knew his phone number by heart, too. The machine was always being "maintained."

I don't know what the bottom-line total was, but I always suspected it would have been cheaper to buy a few dozen copy machines so that when one broke we could just toss it and get another out of shrink wrap.

That's why breakfast came with a chuckle Wednesday as I reviewed the radio and newspaper stories about the Legislature's newest productivity tool.

Each of our legislators will be issued a BlackBerry, one of the super-charged cell phones that let you get e-mails, surf the Internet, play games, plot your day and more, using Bluetooth wireless technology so you're connected and cool at the same time.

The units themselves are being donated by the cell phone service provider and aren't going to cost anyone a dime, we're assured, which is why I was having this laughing-fit flashback to the copy machine.

The cost to taxpayers is only going to be about $102 a month per lawmaker and some legislative staffers for the airtime, steeply discounted over what they'd pay individually, legislators were told. Since retail on the phones is around $200 if you shop very prudently and a whole lot more if you don't, it means that every two months the service cost could equal or exceed the value of the donation.

That cost doesn't include training in how to use the handy little devices, either.

Nope. Lawmakers plan to hire someone to work full-time, estimated salary in excess of $50,000 a year, to teach them how to use the devices and maintain them. Apparently they don't already have IT guys who can tackle that job, and it's not part of the package from the cell phone service provider that's donating the BlackBerrys. That new hire reminds me of our copy machine repairman. Seems nothing's really free.

That company, Cingular, assures reporters that it's a business decision to donate the units, not a political one. They don't expect any special favors. I believe them absolutely, given the relative cost of providing the BlackBerrys (bet they get them well below cost) versus the money they'll be making from the state, every single month, for the airtime, even with the steep discount they've provided.

Until, that is, something new comes along without which legislators just won't be able to be productive.

This might be a good place to say that I think BlackBerrys rock. The technology is great, and I wish I had one. That little, super portable device is a dynamo.

I don't have one, though, because when I prioritized what's important in the family budget, it didn't compete well against things like food or housing or dental work.

Apparently it's different in a government budget, where the housing is for low-income or homeless people, food feeds the ever-increasing number of poor, and dental work is a sometimes offering for people who qualify for Medicaid. I feel my personal budget decisions. It's my stomach that growls. In government budgets, the door slams on someone else.

If we're paying for it, we expect to be given their phone numbers.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what it is about being an elected representative that entitles one to have this entirely on the taxpayer's dime even though much of the use of a BlackBerry is bound to be personal. If lawmakers currently carry cell phone contracts, in fact, they'll be able to let those contracts expire and save some personal money that way.

One of the lawmakers pointed out that the cost for the airtime is the same, whether it's business or personal use, so it really doesn't matter. I disagree. It matters in principle.

This isn't like a computer that sits on the legislator's desk at the Capitol and is used exclusively while the individual is wearing his lawmaker's hat. This is an around-the-clock perk for a part-time job. It's not even like state employees, who may have BlackBerrys as part of their full-time work. For one thing, those folks didn't vote to give it to themselves.

The freebie aspect is in play, because it would be just too complicated from an accounting point of view to have legislators contribute to the cost of the devices, legislators decided.

Here's a thought: Why don't they each pay for their own, and the state can reimburse them a set, reasonable portion of the fee each month to compensate them for time spent on state business? That's how most of corporate America handles it when employees have something that is useful for both business and personal use.

Maybe they could do without the trainer and read their manuals — like everyone else who has a BlackBerry, or ask the company that's giving them the BlackBerrys how they work. At least, the "trainer" with the $50,000-plus salary could probably see that each one kicked in something every month toward the cost of the contract.

Maybe we should fill their gas tanks, too. Must be awful keeping track of mileage.


Deseret Morning News staff writer Lois M. Collins may be reached by e-mail at lois@desnews.com.