When the Interim Finance Committee met a week ago to review the governor's proposed budget cuts, any citizens who tuned in got a look at how technology is saving the state a lot of money.
In fact, it was in part that technology which enabled them to tune in.
Rather than buy airfare for a dozen lawmakers to bring them all to one place, then cover their hotel costs for a night, the 21 members were brought together from four different locations by video conference.
Some members were in Reno, others in Las Vegas and Carson City. And Sen. Dean Rhoads, R-Tuscarora, was at Great Basin College in Elko.
The Elko connection alone saved Rhoads from a five-hour trip to Salt Lake City, then to Reno since there is no longer a direct flight between Reno and Elko. And he said it saved the state a $650 airline ticket. His other alternative was a nearly five-hour drive.
And the video conferenced meeting was also broadcast on the Internet for all to see.
Lorne Malkiewich, director of the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said video conferencing has come a long way from the bad sound quality and jerky, grainy video of the first unit they purchased in 1992. He said Sen. Jack Vergiels, majority leader in 1991, pushed for that purchase because he believed it would help Las Vegas residents participate in the legislative process.
He said it did that, making it possible for citizens in Southern Nevada to see the Legislature in action and make their feelings and wishes known, but that it also cut costs.
"It's paid for itself so many times over and, as the technology improved, more people are willing to use it," Malkiewich said.
The legislative branch now operates a total of five systems that can connect Carson City and Las Vegas meeting rooms. And the counsel bureau makes those systems available to all state agencies for just $25 an hour - far cheaper than airfare to bring meeting participants together.
Those systems are in demand not only during session but all year.
"Now one of the major complaints I get is that a major hearing was held and it wasn't video conferenced," said Malkiewich.
While the legislature's system is the most sophisticated with remote-controlled cameras and operators directing the video production of meetings, falling prices have enabled state agencies to buy dozens more of the video-conferencing systems. Purchasing Division Administrator Greg Smith said his own office saves numerous trips between the north and Las Vegas by using the technology as does Personnel, Health and Human Services, the Public Employees Benefits Program and other agencies. The Supreme Court also uses the meeting for administrative meetings, although the court hasn't yet authorized the broadcast of its hearings.
But neither they nor Director of Administration Andrew Clinger could estimate how much the state saves by using the technology.
"We don't bother doing the numbers because they pay for themselves so fast," said Malkiewich adding that the systems are down to about $5,000.
The legislative branch might have saved half that amount on last week's IFC meeting alone.
In addition, Malkiewich said, the video is put on the Internet for all those meetings as well. And during a legislative session, every committee meeting and every floor session of the Senate and Assembly is broadcast on the Internet, making the entire legislative process open to anyone interested.
Smith said his and Clinger's offices developed a contract several years ago as the technology began to spread which made sure all the video conferencing systems purchased by the state can work with each other.
"It works wonderful," he said. "The prices are coming down and the quality of the audio and visual is going up dramatically."
Clinger said his office is encouraging more use of the systems because of the state's budget problems.
But Malkiewich said they have discovered the systems are better at some types of meetings than others.
"They're good for public hearings," he said. "They're not so good for the work sessions or a debate."
He said those types of meetings are usually best done in person.
Smith said he believes the machines also are inappropriate for such things as a grievance hearing "because of the impersonal nature of holding a hearing that way."
The machines are also receiving extensive use by the Parole Board. Board spokesman David Smith said the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service bought and installed the first video conferencing systems in Nevada's prisons. But that made them available for the board to use as well. In 2001 before those were installed, he said the board members put 40,944 miles on state vehicles. With just a couple of the machines installed in 2002, that total dropped to 26,895 miles.
He said Friday with more systems available in Nevada's prisons, the mileage was down to 8,715 in 2006.
He said the Legislature changed the law in 2007, giving inmates the right to be present for their parole hearings. That, he said, would have pushed the mileage back up to more than 40,000 a year if lawmakers hadn't approved buying video conferencing systems for all Nevada prisons and camps.
"The alternative would have been driving and spending more to drive," he said.
Now, Smith said, many inmate parole hearings are held by video conference with board members staying in Reno, Carson City or Las Vegas rather than physically going to the institutions.
Greg Smith said not only do the systems save money on travel, they increase the amount of time state officials have to actually do business. He said with Homeland Security restrictions, it takes a lot more time to get in and out of the airports. Add to that traffic delays and flight time, "and it really compresses the amount of usable business time you have."
"I don't know how much the state has saved but I darn sure know it has taken tremendous pressure off the need to ask for more (travel) money," he said.
• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at firstname.lastname@example.org or 687-8750.
Video conferenced meetings can be seen online at: