Senate slashes e-gov fund?again

The Senate last week cut nearly all of the Bush administration's request to fund its top e-government initiatives for the second straight year, a move that could hurt development of interagency initiatives, administration officials said.

The Senate earmarked $5 million in fiscal 2003 for the e-government fund that supports the 24 initiatives — 11 percent of the administration's $45 million request. For fiscal 2002, Congress appropriated only $5 million, less than the $20 million requested. The administration wanted $100 million by fiscal 2004.

The money is part of the long-delayed fiscal 2003 budget. The Senate approved its version of the enormous spending bill late last week. Congressional negotiators still must resolve differences between the House and Senate versions of the funding bill before it becomes law and the money begins to flow to the federal government.

The fund got less money because senators cut the overall Treasury-Postal Service appropriations bill, which contained the e-government fund, and lawmakers couldn't justify a high funding level for it, according to a Senate source.

But the cut seems to indicate that the Senate considers e-government unimportant in reforming government operations, said Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's associate director of information technology and e-government. He added that $40 million is just "a rounding error" in the overall budget. OMB officials last week worked with appropriators to restore the money and talks continued while the Senate headed to a final vote on the funding bill, Forman said.

The Bush administration has made e-government a top priority and one of the five items on the President's Management Agenda. Agency managers are graded quarterly on their efforts.

Forman said the shortfall is not a severe blow to the initiatives because the initial costs of developing the projects are relatively small, often less than $1 million. However, the costs and complexity of the projects will increase as more agency systems are consolidated, one official said.

In the past, appropriators were concerned that the administration was not providing an adequately detailed plan for how the fund's money would be used.

The administration's E-Government Strategy — which includes the 24 e-government initiatives and milestones — was intended to be a plan. But the strategy may still not be enough, said Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America.

"It's a challenge for the administration and also for industry that we do more to educate the members of Congress" on e-government's importance, she said.

Leslie Phillips, spokeswoman for Sen. Joe Lieberman, said the Connecticut Democrat would work to restore the money as House and Senate negotiators move to the final phases of working out a long-overdue spending bill for fiscal 2003. Lieberman authored the E-Government Act of 2002, which requires interagency investments — something the fund was intended to support.

Nevertheless, without the full request, the administration will not have enough money to implement the E-Government Act, Grkavac said. "This is very disappointing news, and we hope that the funding will be restored."

The funding battle is "an age-old problem with the federal government," said Don Upson, Virginia's former secretary of technology and a former key congressional staff member. "The people with the power to decide don't understand the linkages between the investments in technology and improved performance in management and everything else."

Despite a cut in the fiscal 2003 e-government fund, the Bush administration plans to request $59.1 billion in fiscal 2004 IT spending, up from $52.6 billion in fiscal 2003. About $1.6 billion of the increase is not new money, but rather OMB's effort to better identify IT spending in agencies' existing budgets. OMB's requirement of asking agencies to develop business cases for IT spending led to a better accounting of federal IT spending. "As we're enforcing the discipline of the business case, we're getting a better idea of the investment," Forman said.

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Fiscal 2003 funds

Proposed money for fiscal 2003 includes:

* $436 million for the Internal Revenue Service’s modernization effort.

* $313 million for the Customs Service’s Automated Commercial Environment.

* $150 million for port security.

* $133 million for the Agriculture Department’s Common Computing Environment.

* $80 million for an entry/exit visa system.

* $68 million for automated data processing equipment at the Treasury Department.

* $50 million for an election reform grant program to improve election technology in states and localities in which 50 percent of the registered voters are minorities.

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