Bill cuts funding for major USDA project

The Agriculture Department appropriations bill passed by the House last week would slash requested funding for the department's flagship technology initiative by nearly $77 million, or 43 percent.

The Common Computing Environment (CCE) is a modernization initiative to provide a common set of computers and applications to USDA service centers that provide assistance to farmers across the country. The USDA is expected to finish rolling out the program at the end of this year, when the focus will shift to maintaining and upgrading technologies.

The bill initially reduced spending on the CCE by $44.6 million to $133 million. The fiscal 2004 budget request included $177.7 million for the initiative.

Last week, three amendments further reduced the spending by $8.7 million, $3.5 million and $20 million, bringing the funding for the project to a little more than $100 million, said a House Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee spokesman.

Reps. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Artur Davis (D-Ala.) and Frank Balance (D-N.C.) authored the amendments, the spokesman said.

Funding for renewable energy programs, which provide grants for the development of biofuels, took a higher priority for Kaptur than the CCE, said Newsha Moraveji, spokeswoman for Kaptur. Initially given $3 million, the renewable energy program was boosted to $23 million.

Kaptur "felt this was more important than the Common Computing Environment for now," Moraveji said.

The administration urged the House to allocate more funding for the CCE and several other information technology initiatives, in a statement of administration policy released July 14.

Reduced funding for the CCE "will slow USDA's progress on implementing a geographical information system that would improve USDA's ability to effectively administer commodity and conservation programs and to track natural disasters, animal and plant disease outbreaks, and bioterrorism events," the Office of Management and Budget said in the statement.

Anne Reed, former USDA chief information officer and now president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., said the cuts would likely affect the progress of the program. "They've been on a very deliberate path for a number of years now. It's disappointing to see that slow down," she said. "You have to live within your resources. Surely it will have some impact."

Considering the climate of tight budgets, the fact that the project wasn't cut entirely shows the CCE continues to be a priority, said another former USDA official.

"I still say it's a vote of confidence given the climate of where we are in government spending," the official said.

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