Maryland's online services do not compute

OUTDOORS

January 12, 2003|By CANDUS THOMSON

Just the other day, without getting out of my jammies, I bought a fishing license.

Took me just four minutes and my credit card. Filled out the application, hit a button on my computer, printed out the license and signed it.

Unfortunately, it was a New Hampshire license, not a Maryland license.

What gives? The state Department of Business and Economic Development crows that Maryland is a "New Economy" leader, a smarty pants among the 50 states when it comes to high-tech jobs and know-how.

Our elected officials practically fall over each other at the hors d'ouevres tray while attending the ribbon cutting of the newest high-tech company to call Maryland home.

But when it comes to actually walking the walk in Annapolis and ponying up the bucks for a computerized licensing system, state lawmakers are scarce. Too busy voting themselves a 38 percent pay raise, I guess.

Here's the truth: Maryland is a member of the Digital Dwarfs, one of only 12 states that don't sell fishing licenses online.

An "electronic government" bill signed by Gov. Parris Glendening in April 2000 set a goal to have 50 percent of state information and services online by 2002 and 80 percent by 2004.

It didn't take long for Maryland to log on to its "e-government" future with an online bidding and purchasing system for state agencies.

But for the outdoors community, digital services are (drum roll, please): campground reservations at state parks.

Can we buy a simple $24.50 combo fishing license or a $40 Bay sport pleasure boat decal? Hah, we're talking caveman here in the Free State. Good, old-fashioned writing in the dirt with a stick.

Think of it, Maryland in the same league as Texas, and we're not talking baseball. Heck, that's not fair to Texas, which at least lets you buy your license by phone with a credit card.

"I didn't know that. That's embarrassing," admits P.J. Hogan, a Web page designer and computer consultant who is the state Senate's leading authority on things plugged in.

Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, promises to look into why Maryland is so far behind other states.

"Anything that can be done online should be done online. Anything," he says.

The Department of Natural Resources earmarked money for online licenses, but "with budget cuts, it's not likely we have sufficient funds to move on it," says spokesman John Surrick.

In addition, the Ehrlich transition team has asked state agencies not to initiate any information technology projects until the new administration takes over.

Some jurisdictions have online fishing and hunting licenses. Others, concerned about verifying whether the applicant has passed the mandatory hunter safety course, limit sales to fishing licenses. And some even throw in boat registration in the list of on-line services.

Massachusetts, which leads the nation in the number of high-tech jobs, lets anglers hook up online. Ditto Arkansas, Utah and North Dakota - states that do a whole lot less chest-pounding about their high-tech reputations.

California, satisfied with its 18-month "E-license" pilot that ended in June, is ramping up the program for the entire state. Colorado intends to go online in April.

Since West Virginia's DNR went online in August, more than 6,500 anglers and hunters have become their own licensing agents.

"It's been terrific, especially for our out-of-state hunters," says DNR spokesman Hoy Murphy. "But even our in-state hunters who wait until the last minute are finding the system useful."

Murphy says West Virginia was looking for ways to better serve the public (pay attention, Maryland lawmakers) and to collect license revenue quicker than waiting for license agents to mail it in.

"We looked around and saw how many other states were switching over and we didn't want to be left behind," Murphy says. "Right now people are just starting to get used to it, but we think that it will become a larger part of our sales as word gets out."

New Hampshire went to online licensing this time last year.

"People are way into it," says Liza Poinier, program information officer for the Fish and Game Department.

"What I like is the ability to print out several copies so I can keep one in my tackle box, one in the car and one in my wallet so that I can always get my hands on one."

New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Rhode Island make up New England Interactive, a subsidiary of NIC, which calls itself the eGov company.

New England Interactive began with Maine in April 1999. It runs all online services in Maine and Rhode Island, but just licensing in New Hampshire and Vermont, says Tamara Dukes, regional manager for the program.

A two-year contract for e-government services costs each state about $400,000. Some states cover the cost by charging a convenience fee of $1 to $2 for each transaction. New Hampshire incorporates the expense into its operating budget.

"If you go into Wal-Mart in New Hampshire, the license will cost you the same thing as on New England Interactive," says Dukes.

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