The governor’s budget proposes to set aside $53 million for a technology fund to jump-start a dozen IT projects across government agencies. The initiatives are part of an effort intended to modernize state government.
Under Scott’s plan, which must be approved by the Legislature, funding would be available only for the next fiscal year; it’s unclear how the projects would be financed in future years.
“This isn’t ongoing revenue, meaning it won’t be here next year, so we need to be smart about how it’s spent,” Gov. Phil Scott warned Tuesday in his annual budget address.
“Beyond roads and bridges, we can also address important needs like broadband, weatherization, and major IT and cybersecurity work that will better serve Vermonters,” he said. The technology fund makes up about a quarter of the $210 million in one-time spending the governor proposed.
This is the first time these projects would be grouped together “where all of our IT needs as government are living in one place,” said Secretary of Administration Susanne Young. “It’ll be the first time this has really happened in budgeting for IT in the state. Now, we’re taking it one step further, putting all of those projects in one budget.”
For some projects, like the $12.75 million allocated to the Human Capital Management Project, the funding would be spread out over three years. But for other projects, like updating the Department of Motor Vehicles’ 40-year-old mainframe, the technology fund would provide only the first $15 million of a $45 million to $50 million project. Currently, there’s no plan for where money to sustain those projects would come from in future years.
“There are ideas on the table in that regard, but no clear plan yet,” Young said. “We are going to have to find a way to better prioritize and fund these projects over the next couple of years.”
That planning would fall to John Quinn, secretary of the Agency of Digital Services.
“This is long overdue,” Quinn said. While the $53 million comes from one-time money, Quinn said the fund would make it easier to find the dollars for projects in future years.
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“By creating a fund for technology modernization, this gives us the ability to put money in there as we get it through surpluses, or different avenues,” Quinn said. He plans to work with the Legislature this year to identify some of those avenues.
“Everyone knows what we’re spending on it and where we’re spending it,” he said of the proposed fund.
The goal is to reduce operational costs, provide better customer service, and increase productivity. Young said the projects were also funded with an eye to better supporting a teleworking workforce.
The fund would go toward a dozen projects, among them $3.5 million for modernizing the Vermont Department of Labor mainframe, the system the state uses to process unemployment insurance.
“It is such an expensive project,” Young said, and the fund wouldn’t come close to covering the total cost. But Young said the state would continue working with the federal government, and “we hope to get the funding we need to completely modernize the labor mainframe.”
This isn’t the first attempt to modernize the system, and the last attempt didn’t go smoothly. Vermont ended up pulling out of the failed project after spending $10.5 million in federal money.
Then, the mainframe became briefly infamous at the onset of the pandemic, when it crashed under the pressure of an influx of claims. That delayed the delivery of payments, and as claims kept rolling in, employees had to find ways of working around the outdated 40-year-old technology.
Technology that old is problematic, Quinn said. “These applications are written in 40-year-old IT language and, as you can imagine, there aren’t a whole lot of those people around anymore.” As those who do know the language have retired in recent years, it’s gotten harder and harder to replace them.
At the Department of Labor, the mainframe keeps track of between 30,000 and 40,000 people on unemployment in a typical year, but “when you look across the aisle at the DMV, and you see everyone’s registration for cars, boats, licensing, that becomes very scary when we no longer have a way to maintain it all,” Quinn said.
People who know are retiring
He said one DMV worker has to take his laptop when he goes on fishing trips because no one else knows how to fix the system if something goes wrong.
“He’s in his mid-60s and I don’t know how much longer he’s going to stay with us,” Quinn said. “It’s really starting to worry us as far as how long we’re going to have the ability to support any of these and then we’re really going to be in trouble.”
The fund would set aside $15 million to update the DMV IT system, enough to fund the first year of a three year project, according to Young.
The Agency of Human Services would receive the second largest sum: $9.5 million that will go toward the Integrated Eligibility program, which aims to streamline information about Vermonters who use the state’s public benefits programs and update the Vermont Health Connect website. A 2018 report found that the site was “obsolete.”
Past efforts toward improvement ran into concerns about the scope and cost of the program.
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Still, Quinn said this fund is important because the average Vermonter isn’t able to use state services the way they want. “They should have the option of doing their business online,” he said.
Young said the fund would be just a starting point.
“This $53 million; it’s not going to fund every project, you know, for every year of need, but it is the start on identifying the need and applying some money toward some of the more critical areas, which will make us more productive and efficient and provide better customer service,” Young said.
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