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State Controller John Chiang addresses a gathering of the South Bay's leading business group, the San Jose Silicon Valley (SJSV) Chamber of Commerce, at the San Jose Fairmont Hotel on Friday, Feb. 11, 2011. (Karen T. Borchers/Mercury News)

Cover state government long enough, and it can feel as if there are really just a few dozen stories and only the players and the dollars change.

For example, there's the "messy state tech project" boilerplate: A computer project at (department name), already (number) of years late and (dollar amount, usually nine figures) over budget, has (insert specifics of crisis here).

Occasionally there's a divorce. That happened when Controller John Chiang dumped global software giant SAP after a new state payroll system test failed spectacularly.

It's the second time in four years that the state split with a tech contractor working on the $250 million system, already several years late and triple its initial cost estimate. This time the controller axed the entire project.

Chiang inherited it seven years ago from Steve Westly, who picked it up from his predecessor, Kathleen Connell. Back then, the "21st Century Project" sounded visionary. Delays turned it into a punch line. The rechristened "MyCalPays" kept aiming and missing to update the state's vast, Nixon-era payroll system.

State tech failures can be a lot like a messy divorce, with finger-pointing and court fights. Chiang says there's something of a prenup that obligates SAP to return $50 million it has received so far and pay 150 percent of the total $90 million contract.

SAP says it lived up to the contract. It's a nice way of saying the debacle is Chiang's fault.


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Like a lot of divorces, there's probably blame on both sides. The tech industry literally speaks in code -- programming code. Often they build and install programs tailored to the end user's specifications, in this case the Controller's Office. The detail-oriented work is fraught with peril.

If, for example, you send your son next door to borrow an egg, he knows what to do. Give that task to a software firm, a thousand questions follow: Which neighbors? How many steps to their house? Doorbell or knock? Scrambled or sunny side up? Oh, raw? OK, ask for a brown egg or white?

Meanwhile, laws, policies and politics change, adding complexity and funding uncertainty to the IT procurement process. And it's not like the state can shop around for help very much.

"Because government is so large, only a handful of companies can do this kind of work," says Pepperdine University political scientist Mike Shires.

Whomever you blame, California's payroll system is now a two-time loser. And what has the state learned from this latest divorce?

Chiang spokesman Jacob Roper said Wednesday that the controller and Gov. Jerry Brown have formed a task force of public- and private-industry experts "to answer the question of how the right vendors can be hired at the best price and what reforms are needed to hold those vendors accountable for their performance."

In other words, nearly 20 years, multiple failures and millions of tax dollars later, and the state is still trying to figure it out. Again.

Follow Jon Ortiz on Twitter@thestateworker.