Budget should spare IT projects

Congress last week passed a $390 billion spending package that includes millions of dollars for information technology programs at key federal agencies in fiscal 2000.

The bill, the result of long and intense budget negotiations between Capitol Hill leadership and the Clinton administration, calls on the president to trim 0.38 percent from federal spending across the board, leaving open the possibility that some IT projects could see cuts.

But federal IT observers told FCW that they expect IT projects largely will escape the axe. The bill gives the administration some flexibility to determine where to cut to achieve the 0.38 percent goal.

Market analyst and Colmar Corp. president Jim Kerrigan, a former Treasury Department IT official, said IT dollars likely will be spared.

"I really kind of doubt [IT budget cutting] because the agencies are really dependent on it right now," he said, adding that agencies likely would reduce travel and training spending first. "There are other, more inviting targets."

IT procurement consultant John Okay, former deputy commissioner of the Federal Technology Service, agreed.

"In this administration, given the emphasis that they have put on reinventing government and trying to adopt electronic government and using IT to improve the delivery of services, [IT spending cuts] would seem to be out of character with what the administration has been teaching and preaching for seven years," he said.

"If called upon, I would expect the CIOs to have some pretty good ammunition to defend critical programs," Okay said.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Information Technology Association of America's Enterprise Solutions Division, said an across-the-board cut could effect successful and troubled federal programs that rely on IT.

"Across-the-board cuts, they cut the lean and the fat," she said. "It's always disconcerting in that it's not always targeting the programs that need cuts."

Grkavac said the strict 1 percent across-the-board cut proposed earlier by congressional Republican leaders "would have had serious ramifications for the IT industry" because IT makes up a large component of many federal programs and offices.

But the spending bill, H.R. 3194, still stands to funnel significant amounts of money to agencies steeped in high-profile IT projects. The bill would fund the departments of Commerce, Education, Health and Human Services, Interior, Justice, Labor and State.

IT-related earmarks in the bill include $4.48 billion in emergency funding for the Census Bureau to conduct the 2000 census; $604 million for the National Weather Service; $2.35 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; and $639 million for the National Institute of Standards and Technology, including $142 million for the Advanced Technology Program.

The bill also would give $28.7 million to the Interior Department's Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians, which has been attempting to automate records used to manage Indian trust funds.

The bill cleared the House on Thursday. But in the Senate on Friday, it appeared to be headed for a roadblock after Midwestern senators, objecting to dairy product pricing provisions, threatened to obstruct it. The senators dropped their plans to delay the bill after Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) promised to revisit the pricing issue next year, paving the way for speedy passage of the bill.

Even with final congressional approval of the bill, full spending details may not emerge immediately because the administration will have to determine where to cut the 0.38 percent. A House staff member told FCW that staffs were still sifting through the details of the belated bill. And a budget analyst said agency officials will not know IT spending details until after the spending bill becomes law.

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