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In California, Retro-Tech Complicates Budget Woes

  Tax  -   POSTED: 2008/08/06 13:15

Faced with a $15 billion budget shortfall and a testy State Legislature, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is dealing with a host of critics, including pro-tax Democrats, tax-averse Republicans and a public increasingly displeased with him.

Now, even the state’s computers seem to be against him.

Last week, with no budget agreement in sight, the governor issued an executive order terminating thousands of part-time and temporary state employees and slashing the wages of about 170,000 of the state’s full-time workers to the federal minimum wage.

But the California controller, John Chiang, says the state’s payroll system — which uses a programming throwback known as Cobol, or Common Business-Oriented Language — is so antiquated it would take months to make the changes to workers’ checks.

“In 2003, my office tried to see if we could reconfigure our system to do such a task,” Mr. Chiang told a State Senate committee on Monday. “And after 12 months, we stopped without a feasible solution.”

David J. Farber, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, said using Cobol was roughly equivalent to having “a television with vacuum tubes.”

“There are no Cobol programmers around anymore,” Mr. Farber said. “They retired centuries ago.”

Mr. Farber said California was not alone in having out-of-date systems — or handy excuses.

“It’s old technology, and you can’t find a repairman who knows how to fix it,” he said. “It also a neat way of figuring how not to get your salary cut.”

Even before his remarks to the Legislature, Mr. Chiang, a Democrat, had made no secret of his dislike for the order by Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, saying he would refuse to follow it even if the state’s computers could handle the job. The governor, in turn, has threatened to sue Mr. Chiang to force the pay cuts, saying Mr. Chiang was violating a 2003 California court decision mandating that state employees take minimum wage if the Legislature does not pass a budget.

The current budget expired on July 1. Negotiations among lawmakers have been as sluggish as the state’s computers.


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