Wyoming Budget Constraints Put Outdated Technology Infrastructure Upgrades on Hold

The budget has been limited by a drop in energy revenue and has stalled a plan to update the state's computer system. This could severely limit online services.

by Trevor Brown, Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, Cheyenne / April 22, 2016

(TNS) -- Costly replacements for several state computer systems are on hold as Wyoming continues to face budget constraints.

State lawmakers punted on tens of millions of dollars of budget requests for technology upgrades earlier this year.

And with many fearing the energy downturn will limit state revenues for several more years, there is some concern the state could be hard-pressed to address its outdated technology infrastructure. Officials say this could hamper the state’s ability to provide services that include managing the state’s payroll system and processing driver’s license applications.

“The cost to update some of these systems is just enormous,” said Rep. Dave Zwonitzer, R-Cheyenne. “And it’s somewhat of a hidden cost because the public can’t always see it, but they still want to see quick services running smoothly.”

One of the state’s largest funding needs is the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s request to replace its 1980s-era computer system.

The statewide system is used to manage vehicle titles and registration, identification cards, concealed carry permits, driver’s licenses and driving records. It also allows law enforcement groups to run license plates during traffic stops.

WYDOT officials told lawmakers last year that the system is nearing the end of its lifespan and is becoming more challenging to maintain.

The state estimates it would cost $30 million to $50 million to replace.

Zwonitzer, who co-chairs the Joint Transportation, Highways and Military Affairs Interim Committee, backed a proposed bill to raise the state’s vehicle registration fees to begin raising funds for the upgrades.

That proposal was defeated during a committee hearing before this year’s legislative session.

Since WYDOT is not the only agency facing this type of problem, legislative leaders recently agreed to study the issue on a statewide basis to make sure agency-to-agency systems are compatible and cost effective.

One of the other proposed upgrades that was denied this year is a request to overhaul the human resources system that the State Auditor’s Office uses to handle its complex payroll system for state employees.

After the Joint Appropriations Committee denied the $15.3 million request for a replacement prior to this year’s session, State Auditor Cynthia Cloud made a rare appearance at the Legislature’s Management Council to ask top lawmakers to reconsider.

She said during that hearing the new system is needed to protect data, eliminate duplicative processes and streamline her office’s duties.

“This is an important IT project in the state that impacts over 9,900 employees and three branches of government,” Cloud said.

The Legislature ended up denying Cloud’s request, at least for this year.

But lawmakers did approve $10 million to partially pay for a similar human resources and accounting computer system at the University of Wyoming.

UW’s highest priority exception request this year was to get state funding for the fiscal system, which has an estimated total price tag of about $30 million.

Following the session, UW President Dick McGinity said getting the partial funding was still a victory for the university.

“The fiscal systems upgrade is extremely important and, frankly, long overdue,” he said in a statement. “The Legislature’s support only gets us part of the way. We will have to commit more internal resources to the project, and that will require some difficult decisions in the weeks and months to come.”

Zwonitzer said this type of request shows the state needs to be creative, at times, to find ways to pay for the expensive projects.

“How to get the funding is the million-dollar question,” he said.

“You probably have to look at multiple funding sources for them and make a determination on when and how you are going to pay for them.”

Trevor Brown has been the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government and military reporter for the past five years. Thursday was his last day. As he moves to a new journalism job in Oklahoma, we wish him well.

©2016 Wyoming Tribune-Eagle (Cheyenne, Wyo.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.