Missouri State Government Struggles With Huge IT Gaps

By Kurt Erickson

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JEFFERSON CITY, Missouri (St. Louis Post-Expedition) – The major computer systems used by the state of Missouri are so outdated that officials fear that some of the only programmers who know how to work with outdated technology may be retiring.

Without their knowledge of a programming language that is rarely used, they say, no one will know how to prevent critical functions, such as tax reporting, payroll processing, and budgeting, from failing.

The problems extend to all of the state’s sprawling government operations, affecting people when they buy a car, apply for Medicaid, or collect their state tax refund.

But for years Gov. Mike Parson and lawmakers took little action to address this increasingly costly problem.

The latest flaw came to light this month when the Post-Dispatch reported that the social security numbers of teachers, administrators and counselors in Missouri were vulnerable to public exposure due to gaps in programming at a website maintained by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

The vulnerability was discovered in a web application that allowed the public to search for certifications and teacher credentials. The ministry removed the affected pages from its website on Tuesday after being notified of the problem by the Post-Dispatch.

Parson called the newspaper’s work “hacking” and called for a criminal investigation and possible civil trial.

His tirade highlighted what members of his own administration have been saying for years: The state’s aging fleet of computers needs to be upgraded.

According to budget officials, a real overhaul of state systems will cost around $ 83.5 million. This cost would also finance a new portal allowing residents to access various state services.

Rep. Doug Richey, R-Excelsior Springs, is championing the use of $ 2.8 billion in federal relief funds to pay for information technology upgrades, which could take up to six years.

“We have no time to waste,” Richey told members of a House committee in July.

Staff Relocations Concentration on the government IT system comes at a difficult time for Parson.

Earlier this month, Stephen Meyer, Missouri’s chief information security officer, left for a job at World Wide Technology, based in Maryland Heights.

Meyer, who was named the state’s tech czar in 2018, had been with the state for more than two decades.

In this role, Meyer oversaw day-to-day operations including incident response planning, metrics, cloud security, professional development, security policies and procedures, and vendor negotiations.

On Tuesday, in a surprise move, Parson fired Sarah Steelman, who had served as commissioner of the Office of Administration since 2017. The commissioner is in charge of IT services for 14 state agencies.

Parson also hasn’t made a public decision to appoint cybersecurity experts to the new Missouri Cybersecurity Commission.

The legislature created the Missouri Cyber ​​Security Commission this year with the passage of Senate Bill 49, an omnibus public safety bill. The commission would be tasked with identifying the risks and vulnerability of cyber attacks on critical infrastructure in Missouri. However, the governor has yet to make any appointments since July, when he promulgated the bill.

Rep. Ashley Aune, of D-Kansas City, said Parson should start the commission.

“In light of the events that have occurred this week, I believe that the governor cannot wait any longer to appoint members to this commission so that it can do the essential work of identifying and correcting gaps in the cyber infrastructure of the government. Missouri, “Aune said Friday.

Aune said the governor’s reaction to the Post-Dispatch story was a “fiasco”.

“Let’s get down to business: The Parson administration has stored the sensitive, private, and personally identifiable information of nearly 100,000 Missouri teachers on a public website. It’s a terrifying fact, ”Aune said.

“If we want to stop the real threats to our online infrastructure, the governor should start appointing members to this commission now,” Aune said.

Widespread problem Missouri’s computer problems also affected the launch of the state’s expanded Medicaid program. After being forced to launch the much-sought-after program through a lawsuit, officials from the Department of Social Services said it would take two months to program their computers to enable an additional 275,000 low-income Missourians to s ‘to register.

The problems don’t end there.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, the Department of Health and Elderly Services had to replace a two-decade-old homemade computer system it was using to track outbreaks.

Just as states and the federal government have been caught off guard when it comes to having adequate supplies of personal protective equipment in the event of a pandemic, the Department of Health said its internal program made it difficult to follow up. of the spread of the disease. Fatal illness.

“Under the current circumstances of the pandemic, outdated technology has encountered severe limits on data entry and has forced DHSS to redirect many personnel (including National Guard efforts and others) into very laborious efforts just to stay caught up with disease notification, “Department of Health and Seniors Services spokesperson Lisa Cox said at the time.

Additionally, purchase records indicate that the old system, built in 1998, cannot meet federal data collection, security, and data reporting requirements related to the COVID-19 outbreak.

In response, the state hired a contractor to install a new system over a six-week period at $ 150 per hour.

Lawmakers and the governor took an important step this year to modernize the way Missourians buy cars.

Currently, the various computer systems of the Missouri Department of Revenue cannot communicate with each other. This means that when someone purchases a vehicle, they cannot pay tax on it at the dealership.

Under a program that took effect on July 1, motor vehicle dealers were allowed to charge higher fees to buyers of cars and trucks. The law then asks dealers to send a percentage of this sum to the state to build a new computer system that will pay the tax on the spot.

The new fees, which could add $ 200 to $ 300 to the price of a vehicle, are expected to generate $ 13 million per year.

In the next budget, the Office of Administration is seeking at least $ 26 million to replace the state’s 21-year-old mainframe written in code created 60 years ago.

“The system is essential and supports all segments of state government,” the budget request reads. “Critical components with statewide impact include: employee payroll processing, vendor payment processing, statewide budgeting, budget and treasury controls, annual tax reports (W2 and 1099), asset tracking, data warehouse capabilities, and federal grant tracking. “

Time is running out Demand indicates that time is running out because people working on the system are approaching retirement age. Without them, the state will likely have to hire contract labor to install patches and upgrade programs, resulting in higher costs.

“Staff with the knowledge to support the system are shrinking at both the state and contractor level,” the demand says.

A new system could provide officials with real-time information for managing cash balances. This could improve security concerns and allow other agencies to retire their old systems.

Richey said it was time to act.

“We can’t say now that we don’t have the money to fix the system,” Richey told members of the House subcommittee on federal stimulus spending at a hearing in July.

He said residents of Missouri shouldn’t face any issues when interacting with the state.

“I want the Missourian to be able to get into the state of Missouri and see what is available to them very quickly and efficiently,” Richey said.

During the hearing, Steelman said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped officials realize the state needs to improve the online experience for citizens.

With offices closed and people scrambling for help, IT has become a lifeline for some.

“We got a little glimpse of what this might look like,” Steelman said. “This is where other states are going. “

“What we’re looking for is to lay the groundwork,” Steelman said. “We have systems that sometimes don’t communicate with each other. We have a lot of work to do on this. “

“It’s a huge business, but it can be done,” Richey said.

Missouri Chief Information Officer Jeffrey Wann said the cash infusion could help upgrade the state’s systems.

“We have the opportunity to overhaul and modernize our systems so that we can better serve our citizens,” said Wann. “We can be the best state there is. “

“There is no reason our citizens cannot have the same experience I had yesterday ordering pizza from Domino’s,” said Wann.

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