USDA plans 7 percent IT cut

The Bush administration hopes to trim about $140 million from the Agriculture Department's fiscal 2005 budget for information technology, while continuing to keep IT money flowing to USDA's consolidated service centers project.

The president's IT budget request for USDA was $1.76 billion, a 7 percent cut compared with last year's $1.9 billion request. USDA's discretionary spending budget as a whole was cut about 8 percent.

If it stands, the IT budget cut is unlikely to stymie the USDA's field-office consolidation program, known as the Service Center Modernization program, which will receive about $136.7 million.

The service center request is $41 million less than last year's but is still a substantial amount for a program that will create a common computing environment for three of the department's largest field-service agencies: the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Rural Development Office.

With concern about mad cow disease at the top of USDA's agenda, the president's $60 million budget request for mad cow-related research and monitoring includes $33 million to develop a national animal identification plan that would track animals from the farm to the slaughterhouse.

"Obviously there's a lot of work that needs to be done before that budget would even come into play," said Scott Stuart, a spokesman for a group of USDA and industry officials who are working on the ID system. He added that he was hopeful the president's request "will keep the pressure on for getting some emergency funding."

USDA officials have said they are considering, as an interim measure, whether to transfer fiscal 2004 funds from the Commodity Credit Corp. to expedite the creation of a system that could be at least partially in place by the middle of this year, Stuart said.

As expected, there are winners and losers in the USDA's budget. One of the big winners is the Food and Nutrition Service, which could get $132 million to provide matching grants so that states can transfer program benefits electronically. Last year the agency's IT grants budget was $115 million.

The new budget for USDA includes $10 million, up from $3.2 million, for spending on IT architecture planning, a common endeavor of chief information officers. The Farm Service Agency, another winner, could get $18.9 million to spend on new telecommunications services, up from $16 million in fiscal 2004. The National Agricultural Statistics Service could get $1.8 million, a $100,000 increase, to spend on cybersecurity. And a new program, called e-Rulemaking, would get $900,000. The purpose of the departmentwide e-government effort is to expand citizen involvement in the USDA's rulemaking process.

The budget's 2005 losers include the CIO's office, which would receive $4.8 million for an IT security initiative, down from the $11.4 million requested a year ago. A Web-based supply chain management system for purchasing nearly $2.5 billion in commodity food products for federal assistance programs would get $10 million in the president's fiscal 2005 budget, a decrease from $10.7 million in 2004. Lastly, a USDA Forest Service project described as a performance-accountability system for tracking employees' work activities got $1.2 million in the president's budget, down from $1.8 million last year.

For many other USDA technology programs, the proposed budget provides no spending increases. The department's e-training budget, at $1.3 million, would remain steady. USDA's electronic authentication program would keep its $400,000 budget. And the USDA budget for managing electronic records would remain unchanged, and unfunded.

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