Iowa CIO ignites spending dispute

Iowa CIO ignites spending dispute

By Wilson P. Dizard III

GCN Staff

MAY 8—A partisan brawl over information technology spending has broken out following the Iowa legislature's adoption of appropriations legislation that pares back IT programs proposed by Gov. Tom Vilsack (D).

Republican lawmakers who control the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives rejected charges by chief information officer Richard J. Varn that the spending legislation shortchanges Iowans and imposes hidden taxes in the form of government inefficiency.

"If you have a recalcitrant child that is having a tantrum, you don't increase their allowance," said Sen. Steve King (R), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Oversight and Communications. "They're not going to help future appropriations with that attitude."

The legislature funded $15.5 million of Vilsack's $34.5 million IT request, Varn said. "The governor proposed $30 million for fiscal 2001 spending and $4.5 million in spending for projects that had already been approved [for fiscal 2000] in the areas of general security, public-key encryption and desktop procurement," he said. "The legislature took the [fiscal] 2000 money, put it into 2001 and cancelled the projects.

"So it's really $11 million in new money, because the rest has been taken from other programs. You can spell that S-T-O-L-E-N."

Under the appropriations legislation, he said, if the state records a fiscal surplus, as much as $7.5 million of it may be devoted to IT projects. "This is funding technology as the last priority in government," he said. "It's an insult to public-school fire drills to say this is organized like one. These projects are important to the citizens and important to the way governments operate today."

Varn said the cuts would deny Iowans the online opportunity to file their taxes; receive birth, death and marriage certificates and environmental permits; and renew professional licenses.

"They shortchanged the citizens and shortchanged the taxpayers," Varn said. Iowans would pay a "hidden tax," he said, by standing in line instead of conducting business with the state by computer.

Rep. Michael Cormack (R), vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, told GCN that Varn's charges were "totally inaccurate. This is the largest budget in the history of Iowa, in the ballpark of $5 billion. It was an environment of tight budgets across the board."

Cormack rejected Varn's charge that the legislature had reduced the IT spending request because of its zeal to cut taxes. For fiscal 2001, the legislature cut taxes by only $11 million, Mr. Cormack said, compared with previous years when it reduced taxes by as much as $100 million. The legislative session ended April 27. Vilsack negotiated the appropriations legislation with key lawmakers in both houses but hasn't signed it yet, Cormack said.

"I believe in technology," King said. "I believe we need to facilitate that. But when we set up [Varn's] technology department, we sought to promote adherence to standards, effective procurement and [legislative] control over the process.

"Nobody knows the implications of Iowa Access [the state's Web portal]. The implications are huge. My philosophy is that it should be conducted on a fee-for-service basis and be demand-driven. Rich Varn says he can decide [the services to be offered] and tax Iowans to build out electronic access. The real battle is, he doesn't like the control we [in the legislature] have. He openly defies us."

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