HONOLULU – Looking to cut government waste, the Hawaii Senate decided to take a whack at a target that's plentiful on the grounds of the Capitol: paper.
They wanted to slash the pointless paperwork, removing millions of sheets that ended up crowding lawmakers' desks or thrown into waste baskets. They sought to turn off heavy-duty copy machines that stuffed the briefcases of legislative aides and lobbyists alike at taxpayer expense.
Two years since the paperless project began, the Senate recently reported its first savings estimate: more than $1.2 million, nearly 8 million pages and the equivalent of more than 800 trees.
"Doing it this way was so different and daunting at first," Senate Clerk Carol Taniguchi said. "Now it really seems to be a way of life."
Before the project, paper was king at the Capitol, as it is in many legislatures nationwide.
Each piece of written testimony from the public was copied countless times and distributed to legislators, who often took a quick look at the documents before tossing them into the recycling bin. Tall stacks of multicolored bills dwarfed lawmakers trying to cast votes in the waning hours of each year's session.
Staff spent hours walking in mindless circles around tables, collating documents by hand and sorting them into folders.
"It was brutal. Sometimes it was hot and you'd be sweating," said Kamakana Kaimuloa, a clerk for the Senate Committee on Higher Education. "It wasn't fun."
That was all put to an end when Senate leadership issued an order: no more paper unless absolutely necessary.
The public would be given documents on CDs instead of on paper. Bills, testimony and committee reports were put online. The Senate bought laptops, document reading software licenses and wireless Internet at a cost of $100,000. Employees told legislators and the public alike that they would have to use their own printers if they wanted paper copies.
"If you don't want to be paperless, then take responsibility for generating the paper yourself," said Sen. David Ige, technology policy leader for the Democratic majority.
Not everyone was pleased with the unilateral change. Lobbyists accustomed to receiving physical documents wanted to pay for paper copies instead of taking free CDs. Interest groups complained that the government was simply pushing paper costs onto them.
"I believe almost the same number of trees are being used," said Jean Aoki, legislative liaison for the League of Women Voters. "They're saving money, but it's costing us money to print."
In the two years since the Senate's initiative, the amount of paper used has plunged from 9.8 million sheets in 2007 to 2.1 million last year. The $1.2 million in savings during that time came from less paper purchased, fewer temporary staff hired and fewer copy machines.
The Senate used the savings to help plug holes in its budget, preventing leaders from having to reduce staff salaries as the House did, where some workers had a 20 percent pay cut this year.
The 51-member Hawaii House of Representatives also has trimmed paper consumption, but it hasn't taken such a firm approach as the 25-member Senate. In the House, the public can still pay $420 per session for a full stack of daily legislative documents, and representatives aren't denied paper copies when they're requested.