House, Senate to resolve USDA e-filing bill

House, Senate to resolve USDA e-filing bill

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

The House last week passed the Freedom to E-file Act.

The bill, S 777, would require the Agriculture Department to establish a filing and retrieval system via the Internet so farmers could download and file paperwork electronically.

The bill would require the department to post certain forms within 180 days of the law's enactment. An entire online system would need to be up and running within two years.

The Senate in November passed the bill, sponsored last year by Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.). The House passed an amended version.

The bill now moves to conference committee.

The bill sends a strong signal to the department to look at electronic means for providing services to farmers, USDA chief information officer Joseph Leo said. The measure's ambitious time frame will challenge the department, he said.

Leo's office has been assessing security requirements for online transactions, he said. It will take six to nine months to evaluate and narrow down the security options, he said. 'I will not be sloppy and compromise security,' Leo said.

The Senate bill also would require USDA to provide online public access to information on farm programs, quarterly trade, and economic and production reports.

Data harvest

Leo said he did not have a full grasp of the supporting documents Congress would require the department to post online.

The bill also would direct Agriculture to use hardware and software to create a common computing environment, and to develop a common Internet user interface and applications.

The bill would require the department to spend up to $3 million in fiscal 2001 and $2 million annually in subsequent years on implementing the online services.

Farmers currently submit USDA paperwork at county offices, waiting in long lines to file paper documents, Fitzgerald said. The American Farm Bureau estimates that farmers spend about $20 billion annually to comply with federal regulations.

'As our society has become more technological, so have our farmers,' Fitzgerald said. A Farm Journal study last year revealed farmers' Internet use has almost doubled since 1997, he said.

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