Senate panel eyes extra Y2K funding

The chairman of a newly formed Senate committee on Year 2000 last week disputed the Clinton administration's estimates of the cost of fixing the problem and said the committee will consider "significant appropriations" for agencies struggling to fix computers by 1999, despite long-standing White House policy against additional funding.

Sen. Robert Bennett (R-Utah), in announcing the newly formed Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem, estimated that the cost of fixing government computers so that they can properly process dates after 1999 could reach $10 billion to $12 billion. That estimate is more than twice the $4.7 billion that the Office of Management and Budget had forecast in February in its latest quarterly report on the Year 2000 problem.

"I don't think there is any question we are looking at significant appropriations before this is over," Bennett said.Appropriating money to agencies would break from OMB's long-standing position of directing agencies not to ask for or expect additional funding to reprogram or replace computers.

Rep. Steve Horn (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee's Government Management, Information and Technology Subcommittee, last year estimated the government's Year 2000 costs would total at least $10 billion. But last week he differed from Bennett on whether new appropriations were necessary.

"I have consistently stated that I believe it will cost much more than the figure estimated by the administration," Horn said. "I have stated in the past, and still believe, agencies should use reprogrammed money to solve the Y2K problem rather than allocating newly appropriated funds."

John Koskinen, chairman of the President's Council on Year 2000 Conversion, acknowledged last week that the administration's $4.7 billion cost estimate will increase as agencies efforts to fix the problem uncover new requirements but not as much as Bennett's or Horn's estimates.

"As we move through this, there are always things you learn that cause you to increase or decrease funding," Koskinen said. "[The cost estimate] will clearly grow incrementally as we move through the program. I would not be surprised to see it grow by 20 to 30 percent."

Koskinen said he did not expect funding to be a problem, regardless of the size of the investment needed. "We are satisfied that financial constraints will not be a problem," he said.

OMB's next report on the status of the government's Year 2000 conversion, due out in June, will probably indicate a minor increase in agencies' cost estimates, Koskinen said.

A government source said, "I would hope that any decision on additional funds or appropriations would come quickly because agencies may put off making difficult, but necessary, decisions until too late if they think more money is coming."

At a press conference announcing the new committee, Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), ranking minority leader of the Appropriations Committee, will serve as ex officio members, creating a direct pipeline to the appropriations process. Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) will serve as vice chairman of the new committee.

Other members of the committee are Sens. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) and Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

"One-Stop Shop"

Bennett said the special Year 2000 committee will serve as "a one-stop shop" to provide legislative help for federal agencies and will channel funding to agencies that need additional money to fix computers.

Ray Long, director of the Year 2000 program office at the Federal Aviation Administration, refused to comment on Year 2000 appropriations but said he looked forward to working with the new committee.

"The FAA welcomes any insight the Senate Special Committee on the Year 2000 Technology Problem might bring to our ongoing effort to make our computer systems Year 2000-compliant," Long said. "We will also do all we can to help the special committee in its study of the impact of the Year 2000 on the executive and judicial branches of the federal government."

Last month, FAA officials held a press conference to announce they would need $156 million to make its computers Year 2000-compliant. The 1998 supplemental appropriations bill, which Congress passed last week, would give FAA that amount for Year 2000.

Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division, said the Senate rarely designates special committees, so the creation of the new committee shows that Senate leaders are highly committed to solving the Year 2000 problem.

But like Koskinen, Grkavac said she did not foresee problems with funding. "The money doesn't seem to be as much a factor as time and resources," she said.Neither Horn nor Rep. Constance Morella (R-Md.), chair of the House Science Committee's Subcommittee on Technology, indicated any intention to establish a special committee similar to the Senate's new committee.

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