Stateline Story

States Brace For Y2K With Legislation As Well As Computer Fixes

WASHINGTON - For states coming to grips with Y2K preparations, the task calls for more than tweaking computer systems to keep them running beyond December 31, 1999. Technical advice is being extended to businesses and local governments seeking millennium bug protection. State-regulated services such as utilities are under close scrutiny to make sure they get ready for 2000. And state lawmakers have been furiously churning out legislation designed to shield states and businesses from Y2K-inspired lawsuits.

Nevada led the charge to deflect Y2K liability suits, passing a 1997 law giving state and local governments protection against computer-failure liability claims. The classic examples cited are a traffic signal or 911 system that fails due to millennium bug problems, resulting in death or serious injury.

Hawaii, Virginia, California, Georgia and Florida also have Y2K liability statutes, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Earlier this month, 117 Y2K liability bills were pending in 39 states, says David Bender, an information technology attorney with White & Case in Manhattan.

"Some states all of a sudden have gotten religion here and are realizing that they are going into the year 2000 with computer systems that aren't compliant, and that noncompliance may result in substantial damages to private parties," Bender says.

Governors, the National Association of Manufacturers, even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have been putting pressure on state lawmakers to come up with Y2K liability legislation, he says.

Last week, Maryland's Democratic Gov. Parris Glendening vetoed a bill intended to insulate businesses from Y2K liability. "I believe this is a very dangerous precedent," Glendening said in explaining his veto. "It allows companies to escape responsibility even if their actions led directly to the death or personal injury of a citizen."

In Alabama, two women may have filed the first millennium-bug lawsuit. They charged the state was ill-prepared for possible Y2K problems, and asked an Alabama judge to ensure that people relying on programs such as Medicaid and welfare aren't harmed.

Moving away from legislation, states basically have four areas of Y2K responsibility, says Mike Benzen, who heads Missouri's Office of Information Technology. They are:

  • Ensuring that the business of state government continues unaffected into 2000. That includes protecting data systems crucial to services such as Medicaid, motor vehicles, income taxes, etc.
  • Making sure that state-regulated entities such as telephone companies, electric utilities, hospitals, water systems and banks stay current with their Y2K work.
  • Taking care of outreach duties that help counties and municipalities, as well as small- and medium-size businesses, make millennium-bug fixes.
  • Maintaining public confidence.

That last area is just as critical as the first three, says Benzen, who's also president of the National Association of State Information Resources Executives (NASIRE).

"You have to be careful how you address this one," he says. "We have a lot of doomsday people out there who are predicting that society as we know it is going to end at the end of the millennium." In Missouri, officials counter such talk with a "truthful explanation of where we think this issue is, and what we think the outcome will be," Benzen says.

"If we have people buying generators and storing 55 gallons of gasoline in the garage, that's a problem."

As part of its outreach effort, Missouri printed 10,000 brochures and made them available to businesses. All were gone within 48 hours, Benzen says.