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States tackle Y2K bug

A recent slew of antibug rallies held by states may indicate that state governments won't be caught with bugs at their 2000 New Year's parties.

    Though some say the federal government is dawdling in its approach to the Year 2000 problem, a recent slew of antibug rallies held by states may indicate that state governments won't be caught with bugs at their 2000 New Year's parties.

    The latest event focused on eradicating the computer pest was a Year 2000 summit held last week by California, which intended to raise Y2K awareness among state officials and to provide technicians and systems administrators with a battle plan.

    California?s efforts have drawn widespread media attention over the past year as its governor and a group of state legislators have labeled the issue a top priority. But now, experts say, the same fervor to fix Year 2000 problems exists in just about every state capitol across the country.

    "Because California is a big state, it tends to draw more attention from [the press]," said Steve Kolodney, chairman of the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE). "But Pennsylvania, like California, had a big summit on the issue as well."

    NASIRE, which represents information resource executives and managers from the 50 states, U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, has targeted the Year 2000 issue as a key initiative.

    According to NASIRE estimates, 23 states are still planning their Year 2000 strategies, while 19 states are now implementing and testing conversions. Four states reported being in both the planning and implementation stages.

    NASIRE advises state governments to finish their programs by mid-1999. That's "to give them a little wiggle room. But I wouldn?t be surprised if some are still testing in November 1999," Kolodney said.

    The Year 2000 problem, or the millennium bug, boils down to this: Many computer systems use software which tracks dates with only the last two numbers of the year, such as 97, instead of 1997. When 00 comes up for the year 2000, many computers will view it as 1900 instead, leading to potential failures.

    Though states can share some common strategies in tackling the bug, each must develop a plan that is tailored to its needs. Kolodney said state program models vary, reflecting the geopolitical makeup of the state. "Regardless of the programs out there, we?ve found that the effort by state governments to fix the problem is very robust."

    Charles Gerhards, director of the central management information center in the Office of Administration of Pennsylvania, said having a centralized plan with decentralized monitoring works for his state, but may not work for others. "This keeps the governor informed and happy, but most of the work is being done at the departmental level."

    Rhode Island?s Year 2000 coordinator Sally J. Spadoro said at first she found it hard to get a handle on the size of the Y2K problem in her state and what tools would work to fix it. "Now, the Web has helped eliminate a lot of that. There seems to be a lot more information on the issue on the Internet than there used to be," she said.

    Although a simple problem to fix, she said, knowing what?s real and what?s hype is still one of her biggest obstacles as she deals with the millennium bug. "The issue keeps changing day by day. You feel like the sky is falling one day, and it's not the next," she said.

    Deciding which computer systems need to be fixed before 2000 and which ones can wait is in itself a monumental challenge, she added.

    However, not every state government computer in every state will be made Year 2000 compatible in time, and Kolodney expects that there will be "some inconveniences," after the deadline passes. He said the computer systems receiving the most attention are generally those that handle public safety, payments and budgets, and administration. "It all depends on the priorities of a particular state."

    Though some states and private companies maintain that the government is not doing enough to prod states, the federal government is keeping close tabs on states' progress. The U.S. General Accounting Office is currently reviewing Y2K plans of the 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. That report is not yet finalized, a spokesperson for the office said.

    The estimated cost for a state government to abolish the bug ranges from $1.5 million to $200 million.