Will a Special Tech Fund Push IT Forward in Vermont?

Thanks in part to the testimony of CIO John Quinn, Vermont appears to be moving toward a long-term fund for IT modernization projects. The fund would address several large needs, including an inflexible UI system.

A dollar sign layered over a circuit board.
Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens
As Vermont seems to inch toward the creation of a $53 million technology fund for long-needed modernization projects, the importance of CIO John Quinn’s voice shouldn’t be underestimated. 

Over the last few weeks, Quinn has played an integral role in arguing that such a fund is both needed and potentially sustainable. After testifying before lawmakers last Tuesday, he was optimistic that details for the fund could be worked out by the next legislative session that begins in January 2022. 

“Secretary Quinn, he’s pretty quick on his feet,” said Rep. Laura Sibilia, who chairs the Joint Information Technology Oversight Committee and is vice chair of the Committee on Energy and Technology. “I really applaud him. I think we all really appreciate him thinking about how we can modernize and continue to move forward.”

The permanent fund was proposed by Gov. Phil Scott in January, after it was learned that state revenues were healthier than expected — to the tune of $200 million. 

According to government documentation, the proposed fund would contribute $15 million to begin replacing a practically ancient Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles system; more than $12 million for a “Human Capital Management ERP upgrade”; and $3.5 million to the unemployment insurance (UI) system of the Vermont Department of Labor (VDOL), among a total of 12 projects. 

Without the fund, agencies would struggle to modernize, and citizens may not get the level of service they expected from a modern government. 

“The reason the technology fund is important here in Vermont … is the individual departments and divisions don’t have the means to modernize these systems on their own, and yet we can’t afford to fall behind in the technological race, if you will,” VDOL Commissioner Michael Harrington said. 

Both Quinn and Sibilia believe legislators see the need for the fund in general, but questions remain about how the fund would be sustained beyond its initial year. Quinn has taken a stab at addressing this issue. He has proposed getting money from five different sources, including funds from the Purchasing Card Rebate Program and 12 percent of fees collected from the mutual and trust fund regulation assessment. Annually, the sources would add about $10.9 million, which Quinn admits is a “rather small amount.”

“We’re thinking crawl, walk, run,” Quinn said. “We needed to start somewhere, and that was the revenue we could find right away in such a short period of time.”

The tech fund would represent a significant break from the past. For years, IT projects in Vermont have been connected to a capital investment fund, which is made up of 20-year bonds. Quinn sees the tech fund as a way to get out of a “bad habit of bonding for 20 years for IT projects.” Sibilia went even further, describing the fund as something that would not only modernize IT but also government in general.  

“We have to make this part of the systemic funding of government,” Sibilia said. “It’s capacity. People are capacity, so is our IT infrastructure, our vehicles that we use in government, our computers. We just have to build this into the system … that’s a big shift.”

UI Tech in Vermont

The mainframe used by VDOL serves as a compelling example of why the tech fund can’t come too soon. Quinn said VDOL started using its mainframe on June 9, 1970, which makes the system older than Quinn himself. The mainframe runs on a language called F COBOL, which is pre-COBOL. 

“I can’t find people to program in F COBOL to make changes in the application … the application doesn’t even have a true database,” Quinn explained. “What it has is these text files that are really unstructured … Any report that we try to run has to involve a developer from my staff. There’s no true pull out of the system. When you think about those old mainframe applications from a resource perspective, I have very few people left who can modify the system and get it to work and fix it when it does break.”

“It just really handicaps a department like ours,” Harrington said. “It forces us to do a lot of manual processing.”

For the UI system specifically, something as simple as adding a claimant is tantamount to staring into a complex web. VTDigger reported that the system “repeatedly froze and crashed” when the number of UI claims soared last spring. 

“There’s 250,000 lines of code and 78 individual programs, and that’s just to get the claimant on board into the system,” Quinn said. “There’s no debugger. When you make changes, good luck finding it. There’s just no modern way to find it, so we have to make changes very carefully.”

UI system upgrades aren’t cheap. Harrington stated a solution can run “anywhere from 20 million to 90 million depending on the state and the specifications.” Even on the low end of that range, that’s a lot of money for a small state like Vermont. And although the latest federal stimulus package includes $2 billion for UI modernization across the country, Harrington’s not jumping for joy yet. 

“There is money set aside, but it’s really left to the U.S. Department of Labor to determine how that’s allocated and what type of technology and modernization efforts they’re going to support, so right now it’s very vague in terms of how that will actually impact individual states,” Harrington said. 

Sibilia said the many UI challenges faced by citizens and states points to “another epidemic across the country in terms of IT infrastructure.” For Vermont in particular, old systems have persisted because the state hasn’t ever proactively funded IT. 

“That’s no longer acceptable,” Sibilia concluded. 

Jed Pressgrove has been a writer and editor for about 15 years. He received a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a master’s degree in sociology from Mississippi State University.