Ag funds stalled

The House Agriculture appropriations subcommittee is withholding fiscal

2000 funds for one of the Agriculture Department's major computer modernization

plans until the USDA submits more details on how the money will be spent.

The chairman of the appropriations subcommittee, Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.),

and ranking member Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) said last week in a letter

to USDA Secretary Dan Glickman that they have "serious concerns" about the

USDA's plan for its Common Computing Environment. CCE will standardize systems

throughout department field offices.

Skeen and Kaptur asked for details about how the $12.6 million appropriated

for CCE in fiscal 2000 will be spent. The fiscal 2000 Agriculture Appropriations

Act required congressional Appropriations and Agriculture committees to

approve the department's CCE plan before releasing the funds. But Skeen

and Kaptur said that the USDA plan submitted March 2 is not specific enough.

They also are concerned about the USDA's decision to terminate vendor

support for aging Farm Service Agency systems because the move could force

the USDA to acquire a system that may not be compatible with the CCE platform.

Also, before the subcommittee can "seriously consider" the USDA's $75

million fiscal 2001 budget request for CCE, "we have to be sure that the

department is ready and able to manage this project," the letter said.

Glickman will draft a response with more specificity, said Joseph Leo,

the USDA's chief information officer. However, Leo said that the USDA is

faced with funding constraints, the departure of 10,000 workers over the

past several years and a farm crisis that Congress and other stakeholders

don't fully recognize.

"I have yet to see the full understanding of the backdrop on which we

are trying to make this happen," he said.

Originally, the USDA had requested $74 million in fiscal 2000 to fund

the Service Center Modernization Initiative — which includes CCE — leaving

a large funding gap, Leo said. In addition, the subcommittee shot down the

department's plan to create a new Support Services Bureau, which would merge

the administrative functions of Farm Service Agency missions into one. These

actions forced the department to rethink its plan, Leo said.

The need to modernize the county-based delivery infrastructure "is getting

even more important as each day goes by," Leo said.Seeding CCE

The Common Computing Environment is the critical component of the USDA's

Service Center Modernization Initiative, which will provide a single, integrated

and modern technology system for county-based agencies. USDA wants a fully

operational system in 2002.

CCE devices include:

* Interchangeable computers.

* Network/communications servers.

* Application servers.

* Geographic information systems servers.

* Public access servers.

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