MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Legislature could order a restart for the state government's massive information technology operations, which include data on Alabamians from the cradle to the grave.
Republican leaders in the Senate are seeking a vote Tuesday on a two-bill package they say will streamline the state's information technology operations, reduce state workers and save 10 percent to 20 percent annually.
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said he wants the Senate to vote on the bills Tuesday — the second day the Senate can consider a bill in the 2013 session — because his priority this session is "identifying ways to operate more efficiently." Marsh said he wants to reduce the state government workforce through attribution, not through dismissals.
In the two years since Alabama's current governor and Legislature took office, the state workforce has dropped by 10.5 percent, or about 4,000 employees. Some agencies have had layoffs because of budget cuts, but most of the reduction has happened by not replacing employees who resigned or retired.
After Republicans took control of the Legislature in the November 2010 election, Marsh got lawmakers to start the Initiative to Streamline Government and hire the Center for Government and Public Affairs at Auburn University Montgomery to research ideas. Republican Sen. Phil Williams, a Gadsden attorney, is sponsoring a two-bill package that grew out of that research. The governor is raising concerns about one bill, and Senate Democrats are questioning both.
State computers keep up with everything from the cradle to grave. First, there is a birth certificate. Then there is a driver's license, as well as traffic tickets and income tax payments. For some, there are welfare payments and for others, state pension payments. Finally, there is a death certificate.
Williams said there is a lack of coordination in state government's information technology operations. "Every department is like a silo that has its own way of doing things," he said.
One of his bills would set up a Cabinet-level position of secretary of information technology as principal adviser to the governor on information technology policy.
His other bill would set up an Alabama Technology Authority to serve the information technology needs of the state's non-education education agencies. It would assume the computer work now done by the Data Systems Management Division of the state Finance Department and have the power to bring more coordination to the state's varied operations.
Williams said the authority would work much like the Alabama Supercomputer Authority, which serves educational programs from kindergarten to college.
The authority would be overseen by a board, with members appointed by the governor and others. Williams said the secretary of information technology would change with each governor's administration, but the authority would provide continuity.
A study by Auburn University Montgomery said it's hard to estimate the state government's current costs of information technology or the potential savings because state agencies account for the information technology expenses in different ways. The study estimated the current costs at $317 million annually and forecast annual savings at $32 million to $64 million, based on experiences in similar states.
Williams said the legislation is not the result of two recent breaches of state computers, but he hopes better coordination would result in more safeguards against hacking.
A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said he wants to see the Legislature to pass Williams' bill creating the secretary of information technology. "Creating an IT secretary to streamline technology efforts in state agencies is one of the recommendations to come from the Governor's Commission to Improve State Government," Jennifer Ardis said.
Ardis said the governor has concerns about Williams' bill setting up the authority and its delivery of information technology. She said the governor would like to hire a secretary of information technology and have that person work with the senator on making the information technology services more efficient.
Williams' bills are such a priority for the Senate's leader that Marsh tried to get them up for a vote Thursday, the first day the Senate could consider bills this session. He soon decided to hold off until the next meeting day — Tuesday — because the Senate's Democratic minority raised concerns.
Democratic Whip Bobby Singleton of Greensboro said Democrats agree some changes are needed, but they balked because the sweeping changes were being rushed through adequate time for senators or the public to study the bills.
He said Democrats want more information about the effect on state employees. They also want to make sure any outsourcing is done in a fair and competitive way and that there is minority involvement in the authority as well as in the competition for contracts, he said.
Mac McArthur, executive director of the Alabama State Employees Association, said he's had little time to study the bill because it is so new. But he said he's concerned about the long-term effect on state merit system employees.
"I have more questions and concerns than anything positive," he said.