Legislators are concerned about state’s Y2K progress

A five-hour hearing on the state’s year 2000 compliance efforts, held by the General Assembly’s Joint Finance Committee earlier this month, apparently served as a wake up call for state legislators and administration officials alike.

The last time the General Assembly held a Y2K status hearing was about a year ago, and at least one committee member said he’d expected more progress over the course of a year. As a result of the most recent hearing on Jan. 12, the Joint Finance Committee ordered another hearing for February and made plans for follow up throughout 1999.

Department of Administration officials left the hearing with a list of questions to answer, in writing, and instructions to organize a formal reporting system for tracking individual state agencies’ progress. Barbara Weaver, who is the state’s chief information officer and works within the Department of Administration, was charged by Gov. Lincoln Almond with overseeing efforts to check, upgrade and replace any state computer systems that are not programmed to handle the date change in 2000.

Among the specific questions that Weaver and her staff must answer for the committee: what is the anticipated cost of making the state’s system Y2K compliant?

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In a phone interview last week, Sen. J. Michael Lenihan, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said “the meeting we held last week was a wake up call for the people who are charged with making the state Y2K compliant.

“Based on what I heard I’m not overly comfortable (with the progress),” he added. After last year’s hearing, Lenihan said, “there was some sense that this was going to be resolved. What I saw at the meeting last week says I don’t think we made enough progress as we should in the year.

Representatives from individual state agencies filed reports about their efforts, some of which have been able to get ahead of the game by replacing computer systems using federal funding. For instance, the Department of Transportation is doing “quite well,” Lenihan said. And the Department of Human Services’ Medicaid management system and the Department of Motor Vehicles’ system are both new, according to Department of Administration reports.

“This is definitely not i’s and t’s, this is a matter of the whole alphabet,” Lenihan said, when asked if this was just a matter of dotting some i’s and crossing some t’s on plans. He added, however, “I’m much more concerned about what happens next month than what happened this month.”

Of particular concern to Lenihan the fact only the state Ethics Commission reported having a formal contingency plan in place, in case its system is not fixed when Jan. 1, 2000, arrives. He was also concerned that administration officials had selected the state Adjutant General Maj. Gen. General Reginald A. Centracchio to come up with a public safety contingency plan a week before the hearing.

But still, Lenihan said, “other agencies are just starting up. I’m concerned that the expertise necessary to bring this to a necessary conclusion may not be available at a late date.”

In December Lenihan said he attended a national conference of Finance Committee chairs, at which he heard presentations from two economists that left him feeling the Y2K issue must be addressed swiftly. An economist from Deutsche Bank’s securities operations predicted a 70 percent chance of recession if Y2K issues are not handled properly throughout the country, though an economist from Standard & Poor’s provided a more optimistic outlook, the senator said.

Robert L. Carey, director of research for the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, authored a November report critical of the state’s efforts and also testified at the hearing. “I guess it was a wake up call both for the Assembly and the folks charged with straightening out the Y2K situation. The Assembly needs to get more involved,” he said.

The private, nonpartisan, business-backed watchdog group was concerned about the impact on the state’s economic picture if its computer systems are not operating properly and what it felt was not an aggressive enough approach to dealing with the situation. Carey said it appears, however, the hearing may have sparked more action.

“We felt it was a fairly productive hearing and that the members of House and Senate Finance Committees obtained a better understanding of the issue, and the administration has a better understanding of the Assembly’s concern,” he said.

Weaver said she understands legislators’ concerns, but added that she feels the state will be as prepared as it can be on Dec. 31, 1999.

“I think the major thing that people are concerned about, is that we have not reported in writing,” said Weaver, whose staff has been working on this for more than three years now. “We have made a lot of progress.

“We’ve only got a year left, many of our deadlines are within the next three to four months that gives us plenty of time to make sure things work out,” she added. “We’re going to be making sure that the systems that state government has to run on will work.

As for Lenihan’s concern about General Centracchio’s recent appointment to oversee a public safety contingency plan, Weaver said that was held up because they wanted to hire legal counsel. “Until we had legal counsel we might have been spinning our wheels,” she said.

A report by Centracchio and other public safety officials is expected by June.

At next month’s hearing, Weaver said she thinks they’ll be able to assuage some legislators’ concerns. “I think they will find that we have been listening to their concerns, we’re paying attention, and we’re responding.”

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