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Bennett downplays crisis, talks computers instead

SHARE Bennett downplays crisis, talks computers instead

Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, might have been tempted to say something about President Clinton's sudden crisis but knew he shouldn't.

He probably wanted to say something new about federal transportation funding for Utah but knew he couldn't.Surely he wanted to say something uplifting to the 104 members of the Utah Legislature during his annual visit Friday but knew he shouldn't. If he was going to do the right thing for Utahns, Bennett reasoned, he'd have to talk about something rather depressing.

Bennett told legislators there's a 40 percent chance of a worldwide recession in January 2000.

Thanks for coming, senator. Have a nice day.

Bennett, chairman of the Senate Banking Subcommittee on Financial Services and Technology, said Utah lawmakers and Gov. Mike Leavitt must make sure the state is prepared for a potential computer-glitch disaster when the calendar changes to Jan. 1, 2000.

As for the president's recent troubles, Bennett said Washington is "paralyzed" and "transfixed."

"You can hear any rumor you want to hear," he told the state Senate. "We're just going to have to wait until this circumstance plays out."

Bennett also talked about transportation funding but didn't tell legislators much they didn't already know. Little has happened since last fall when Congress failed to reauthorize the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), which establishes a funding formula for highway and transit projects. The Senate approved a new six-year bill, but the House balked, so only a six-month extension was passed. It expires in May.

Bennett said he hopes the House can resolve its issues with ISTEA.

Meanwhile Utah needs to get its own house in order before bringing in the new year 23 months from now.

Computer hardware and electronic devices, and machines that use embedded microprocessors like airplanes and elevators, could shut down when the six-digit date codes they operate on turn from 12-31-99 to 01-01-00. The result could be catastrophic to the banking industry and nearly every facet of the economy, Bennett warned.

"I'm told there is a $40 million budget in the state to deal with (these) problems," Bennett said to the House of Representatives. "I would hope the particular committees would be asking the question, `How prepared are we for the year 2000?' and then asking again. Don't take the first answer you get."

The first time Bennett asked if U.S. Senate computers would be affected he was told they would be adjusted and not to worry. But he persisted and later was told that only half of the 9,000 Senate computers could be easily fixed before the end of the century.

"Now what about the 4,500 that are left over? Frankly, many of them are just going to have to be thrown away because they can't be fixed," Bennett said. "It's a major problem."

Some of these computer chips are located 30 feet under the water on oil-rig platforms, he said. Two airlines have already announced they won't have planes in the air on New Year's Eve '00, Bennett said, because they fear the glitch could cause them to drop from the sky.

Bennett has called for a federal law requiring businesses to report what they are doing to resolve the year 2000 problem.

"The thing that would make me feel the best is an editorial on Jan. 3, 2000, saying `Sen. Bennett was an alarmist on this issue.' Nothing would make me happier than to have this happen," he said.

He'd be quite pleased, though, if Utah gets what it wants in federal transportation assistance.

The state has requested $4.3 billion in federal assistance for 2002 Olympics-related transportation projects. In establishing a $2.8 billion funding plan for statewide road projects last year, state lawmakers assumed they'd get at least $450 million in federal funds to rebuild I-15 in Salt Lake County.

Bennett promised nothing but told state senators that Utah has plenty of friends in high places. They include Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, chairman of the Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee.