Utah's 104 part-time legislators and about 80 of their professional staff will get free BlackBerrys paid for by the state at a cost of $220,000 a year, legislative leaders decided Tuesday.

Cingular is providing the PDAs (highly advanced cell phones capable of many other high-tech functions) for free, with a free server, software and other free items. For each unit the state will pay a $102 monthly "complete access" fee — or $220,000 a year for 180 units.

House Minority Leader Ralph Becker, D-Salt Lake, said he will likely use his BlackBerry mostly for his private business — as he now uses his personally paid-for cell phone. He asked, "Can those who wish pay for part" of the BlackBerry use or have it deducted somehow from their pay, "if they feel uncomfortable with taxpayers" picking up the whole tab?

"You can always" pay money back to the state, said Senate President John Valentine, R-Orem.

But it would be too difficult for the House and Senate staffs to handle 180 individual accounts, trying to figure out which calls or e-mails or text messages or video streaming that a BlackBerry does are private or public, said Rep. Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, who sits on various legislative/state technology committees that looked into the BlackBerrys.

Cingular has been letting legislators and certain staff members try out the BlackBerrys all summer, and, Clark said, they just offered lawmakers the best deal anyone has heard of — if leaders agree to the $220,000 contract before Nov. 30.

The state currently provides each legislator with a laptop computer, which is usually switched out every five years or so for a newer model. But the Legislature has not provided cell phones to legislators before.

Most lawmakers, however, have cell phones, and many, if not most, pay for them out of their individual campaign accounts — which under a liberal state law can be used for any legal purpose, even just giving money to the legislator.

Valentine and several other members of the Legislative Management Committee — which approved the $220,000 deal Tuesday — said they were going to start carrying two cell phones, their old ones, which they use for business, and the new BlackBerrys for legislative use.

But Clark said he has used his state laptop while on trips to check not only his legislative e-mail but his personal and business e-mails as well. And there is nothing wrong with using the BlackBerrys in the same way since the Cingular contract allows for "unlimited use," or air-time minutes, for all the services available on a BlackBerry.

In other words, state taxpayers would spend the same amount whether a BlackBerry call were personal or state-related.

House Assistant Minority Whip Pat Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights, admitted: "I'm a BlackBerry dropout." She tried to use the instrument over the summer. "Maybe my fingers are just too large" to properly hit the right keys, she said. "I had to put on my (reading) glasses to see the type on the screen."

"Still, it is a great program and I may try to go back to it someday," said Jones.

House Majority Leader Jeff Alexander, R-Provo, said he already has a BlackBerry but a different service provider. Could he switch over to the new provider without having to get a new BlackBerry, or just get into the state's e-mail and other systems with his old provider?

"Yes," said Clark, adding Cingular's system is so extensive it can be very accommodating.

Left undiscussed at Tuesday's meeting were complaints made several years ago after legislative committee rooms were wired for internal legislative laptop use. (The House and Senate's new, temporary building has high-tech wireless laptop access.)

Citizens, lobbyists and media reporters noticed some legislators appeared to be e-mailing each other messages during committee hearings. While most of the legislators said they were just sending cute, funny notes to each other or asking clarifying questions on bills, several other legislators claimed it appeared majority Republicans were sending messages back and forth to each other, in part planning strategies, bill amendments and so forth, that other lawmakers and those attending the hearings weren't aware of.

If indeed that was the case, now all legislators will have BlackBerrys to easily send text messages to each other during committee or floor debates if they so wish — perhaps a less-obvious way to communicate than having to type on laptop computer screens that may be observed by colleagues sitting nearby.


E-mail: bbjr@desnews.com