Inside the Capitol

Sunday, August 05, 2012

8-10 Could state be headed for another computer crisis?

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SANTA FE – During the administration of Gov. Bill Richardson, a crisis erupted over the underpayment or non-payment of state bills to its suppliers and contractors.
Some small businesses reported having to close because of not being able to collect from the state. Other businesses cut off the state's credit.
Later, the state ran into trouble collecting federal funds because the data in its claims for reimbursement was incorrect or in an unsuitable form.
The first evidence of this crisis occurred several months earlier when state employees began receiving incorrect paychecks or no paycheck at all.
Since state payrollers were closer to the problem, they knew where to go to get it solved quickly. But businesses throughout the state didn't have the quick access to Santa Fe decision makers, so their problems festered.
Could we be seeing the same sequence beginning again? Are any companies doing business with our state government receiving incorrect or delayed payments?
If it is happening, no evidence has surfaced publicly, so far. But during the Richardson administration, several months passed after state employee problems were solved before the public became aware it also was happening to many businesses.
If you, dear reader, know of such examples, please contact me, contact your local newspaper and contact your legislators. Let's not let the problem fester again this time.
Here's what happened last time and what may be occurring today. When former Gov. Bill Richardson took office in 2003, he had dozens of bold ideas to try. At the time, New Mexico was rolling in money so the governor was able to implement many of them.
One of those great ideas was to replace 70 different antiquated computer systems with one big, powerful system. Peoplesoft, a respected company, was awarded the business.
But since Gov. Richardson had many new projects to fund, he wanted to do this one with the least amount of money possible. So instead of buying a computer system tailored to our needs, he bought an off-the-shelf model and hired another company to teach state employees how to adapt it and use it.
Wait, there's more. He didn't have all employees trained. The top employees were trained to go back and train everyone else. Such complex conversions were taking other states in the neighborhood of 28 months. Richardson wanted it completed in half the time at half the cost.
It was far too much to ask of anyone's employees. The problems that resulted took years to remedy. The last to be fixed were the federal reports for reimbursement. The state lost many millions because of inadequate training and testing of the new system.
By the end of the Richardson administration most departments had their act together. Some departments that had the good luck or foresight to hire at least a few people with exceptional talent and experience adapted quickly and are running smoothly.
A few still are recovering from mistakes of the past. At this time last year, Medicaid was looking at having to replace federal money with state money because it couldn't justify up to $100 million of reimbursements it already had received.
But now we have another problem. Some new department and agency heads appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez are not pleased with their information technology staff so they are transferring them elsewhere.
One of those agencies handles the state employees' payroll. The new employees who took over didn't understand the system. The state has hired two different private contractors to fix the problems and to train the new staff. The employees who were transferred out of that division have not been asked to come back and help train their replacements. Consultants are being contracted to do that.
Word is that other divisions and agencies are finding ways to shed unwanted employees. Could those that handle the computers also be a part of that action? The state could be on the hook for some expensive fixes.


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