Oregon considers Open Source software legislation

Many hurdles

A bill introduced in the Oregon State Legislature on March 5 by Rep. Phil Barnhart "requires state government to consider using open source software when acquiring new software." Sounds good -- if it passes.

According to the press release we received from the bill's primary proponent, Ken Barber, "Unlike California's Digital Software Security Act [which has not yet become law - ED.], Oregon's bill does not mandate the use of Open Source Software; it only requires that it be 'on the list' of approved products for State use. It also requires state agencies to provide justification to the taxpayers any time proprietary software is purchased."

(The complete press release text is at the end of this article)

Barber, a resident of Eugene, Oregon, is an MCSE with a self-described "preference for open source." Indeed, one of his pricipal volunteer activies is helping local schools convert to open source. He contacted Rep. Barnhart (who is also from Eugene), and asked him to introduce this bill.

"I'm trying to save the taxpayers money," Barber says.

Rep. Barnhart says, "I am a long-time lurker on Slashdot, so I have been aware of the [open source] issue for some time. I've been convinced for a long time that Windows is a difficult program -- wasteful and expensive." And, he adds, "The little experience I've had with open source has been very positive."

As a member of the legislature's Revenue Committee, Barnhart is actuely aware of Oregon's bleak financial situation -- or, as he calls it, "Our budget crisis." He says the state can expect a $3 billion shortfall over the next two years, even with a stripped-down budget barely large enough to keep schools open and other essential services running. Barnhart also says most state computers do not need general purpose desktops; that they are used for one or two specific tasks that could just as easily be done with low-cost Linux and open source software as with more expensive proprietary programs.

Before he was elected to the legislature, Barnhart was a member of a local school board that was threatened with a software audit by Microsoft. Barnhart says, "It would have cost $60,000 just to perform the audit."

In the end, Barnhart says, "Microsoft didn't do the audit. The publicity around it was absolutely astronomical." Not only that, local programmers offered to install Linux and open source software to replace all Microsoft products on the schools' computers -- for free. (Several other Oregeon school systems threatened with software audits -- in the Portland area rather than in or near Eugene -- took up similar offers from local programmers and made The Switch.)

Barnhart, as an elected official charged with making sure Oregon residents have a government that operates smoothly, also mentions software concerns that transcend monetary savings, including security, interoperability, adherence to open data standards, and vendor lock-in. He is aware of these issues and would like to see the state use software that is good for Oregon, not just good for its vendors.

But the biggest issue is still money. Every dollar that goes to a proprietary software vendor when a free or low-cost alternative is available means a dollar less for road maintenance, education, crimefighting, and other vital government functions.

Many bills are introduced, few are passed

Introducing a bill -- about open source or anything else -- is only the beginning of the process. "All that means is you've gotten the attention of one legislator," Barnhart points out. He says the next stage is to catch the eye of a committee chairman and get hearings held about your bill. In this case, Barnhart feels the chance of this happening is pretty good. The open source bill -- HB 2892 -- is likely to end up in front of the General Government Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Jerry Krummel, who sells Linux-based computer security systems for SAGE, Inc. when he's not busy legislating and is, therefore, likely to be a friend rather than an enemy.

Committee hearings are where the open source community has a chance to come out and, as Barnhart puts it, "Do some educating."

Assuming the committee report is favorable, the bill is voted on by the entire legislature. And then, if it passes, the show moves to the state senate. And, finally, the governor must sign the bill before it becomes law.

It's a long and tedious process. To give you an example of the odds, 4000 bills or more can be introduced in a single legislative session, while only a few hundred new laws come out of each session. (The Oregon legislature only meets every other year. Bills that don't make it "all the way" during one session need to start over during the next.)

Will this bill pass? Perhaps, perhaps not. If it does, Oregon could become the first U.S. state to require consideration of open source software whenever it makes a sofware acquisition.

And even if it doesn't pass, the hearings will be a sterling opportunity for open source advocates to make their case in a setting where, with any publicity effort at all, they are likely to be covered by mainstream reporters whose readers and viewers might otherwise never learn about the advantages of open source.

Full text of press release issued by open source activist Ken Barber on Mar. 6, 2003:

OPEN SOURCE BILL INTRODUCED IN OREGON

Salem, OR - 5 Mar 2003 - HB 2892, which would require State agencies to "consider the use of Open Source software" for all new software acquisitions, has been introduced into the Oregon House of Representatives by Rep. Phil Barnhart (D - Central Lane and Linn Counties).

The text of the bill is available on the Oregon State Legislature's web site.

Unlike California's Digital Software Security Act, Oregon's bill does not mandate the use of Open Source Software; it only requires that it be "on the list" of approved products for State use. It also requires state agencies to provide justification to the taxpayers any time proprietary software is purchased.

"Oregon could save millions of dollars while achieving very high reliability in its computing needs," reported Rep. Barnhart.

Several independent studies have found Open Source software to be faster, more reliable and less costly than proprietary products produced by Microsoft and others. Several governments around the world are already switching to Open Source, including the State of Rhode Island. If the measure passes, Oregon will become the first U.S. state to embody Open Source recognition into law.

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