Times are tough in state government, but even though the state is facing deficits that could reach $1 billion, Utah's 104 lawmakers got new laptop computers earlier this year, and next week they will get new cell phones.
In fairness, legislative leaders point out that the new computers were authorized several years ago when the state was swimming in money.
The new cell phone and service contract — which will cost around $145,000 a year — is already built into the Legislature's ongoing budget. So the new phones aren't costing the state additional tax dollars. And the Legislature is taking, on average, the same budget cuts as the rest of state government.
T-Mobile won the new cell phone contract to provide 202 phones plus service for lawmakers and staff members for at least one year, with contract extensions that could run another four years. It underbid by $3,100 per month AT&T, which had the cell phone contract the past four years.
Michael Christensen, head of the Legislative Office of Research and General Counsel, said the state will pay $12,031 a month for the phones and service.
The new phones will be the latest Blackberries, be able to run on a 3G network, and do all kinds of fancy stuff, including GPS.
The GPS is so legislators won't get lost, something no doubt many residents may worry about.
Actually, says Christensen, while all of the Blackberries will have GPS available as part of the contract, lawmakers who want the geographic locating service will have to pay for it themselves, which they can do out of their campaign accounts.
The phones will also work internationally. But, said Christensen, legislators will be responsible to write a check to the state for international calls.
T-Mobile's contract does allow a legislator to get special international rates, if they notify T-Mobile they are leaving the country beforehand, and "they can save significantly" on pre-authorized international calling, he added. As was the case with the old AT&T calling plan, all phone numbers dialed or incoming, text messages and visited Web sites on lawmakers' phones will be secret. None of the bills coming from T-Mobile to the Legislature will contain that information, Christensen said.
The Legislature has decreed that the lawmakers' cell phones are, in essence, personal property, although the bills are paid for by the state.
Legislators "are businessmen, they are state employees, and they are politicians," Christensen said. In all those areas, the legislators may not want legislative staff or the public to know who they are calling, who is calling them, or what Web sites they visit.
Like all sites that come through the state's Web connections, certain sites, like pornography, will be blocked, he said.
"But other than that, (legislators) pretty much can do — make calls — however they wish" within the 48 contiguous states with no oversight by state bosses, Christensen said. When legislators first got state-owned cell phones four years ago, legislators proclaimed that they could keep their cell phone numbers secret. By rule, each legislator must provide one public number — that could be their home, their workplace or even just their Capitol Hill office.
However, in practice most legislators do regularly give out their cell numbers to news reporters, lobbyists or the public at large.
The contract also says a legislator gets a new phone free each year, if he or she wants one.The new agreement includes extra phones, cases and belt clips so if a legislator loses or damages his phone he can get a new one free "immediately."