House takes USDA to task over e-filing system

A House panel this week dismissed claims made by the Agriculture Department that it does not have enough funding or resources to complete a computer system that would allow farmers to do more of their business with the agency via the Internet, and the panel urged that development move ahead.

Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the USDA, said the department supports the goals laid out in the Freedom to E-File Act (H.R. 852), which requires the USDA to build in 180 days an electronic filing and retrieval system to enable farmers, ranchers, landowners and others to file paperwork electronically with the USDA. Each year farmers file to the USDA through a county office information about their farms, such as how many acres are used to grow crops and raise livestock.

But the agency needs more time and all of its fiscal 2000 information technology funding, which was recently cut, to build a complete system, Hobbs told the House Agriculture Committee's Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry Subcommittee.

Hobbs proposed developing the system over a phased two-year period instead of the 180 days called for in the bill. But even under a two-year schedule, the USDA still would need more funding and staff resources to complete the system, he said.

"Unless additional funding is made available, we believe that only the first phase of our plan is achievable," Hobbs said. The first phase of the USDA's plan only would provide the capability to download and fill in forms online. Completed forms still would have to be faxed or mailed in.

House Skeptical of Funding Need

However, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said he is skeptical that the USDA could secure more funds because it has mismanaged millions of dollars on IT programs in the past. For example, in 1996 the USDA bought 500 laptops that were not Year 2000-compliant, Goodlatte said.

The USDA should be able to find the funds within its estimated $1.2 billion IT budget to fund the new system, Goodlatte added. "The biggest obstacle to farmers interacting with USDA over the Internet is a familiar face - that is, the face of an old and outdated computer environment."

Filing the forms electronically would reduce the amount of time that farmers spend waiting in line to fill out paperwork at county offices. The system also would provide electronic access to public information on things such as farm programs and economic reports. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) has introduced a companion bill in the Senate (S. 777).

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who introduced the House bill earlier this year, said the system should be a priority for the USDA. "This is the most basic service you provide to producers. If it is a high priority, the [USDA] secretary would want to shift some resources" to support it, he said.

But Hobbs said the USDA already is suffering from cuts that the House has made to its budget requests, including $74 million in fiscal 2000 funding for the Service Center Initiative, which would have been used in part to fund the new system. "It's not so much we need more money; we need what we asked for," he said.

In addition, the USDA funnels much of its money to maintaining its aging IT infrastructure, Hobbs said. "We can't deploy new technology across an infrastructure that is broken," he said.

Meanwhile, potential users have expressed support for the system. Farmers already apply for credit through the Farm Credit System via the Internet and file tax returns with the Internal Revenue Service electronically, said Wayne Dollar, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation, in his testimony before the subcommittee.

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