STATE SPENDING

Watchdog groups say transparency program could save millions

 

A budget transparency program paid for by the Senate but kept under wraps should be launched so the public could help the state reduce costs and trim waste, two watchdog groups say.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

On the same day Senate leaders announced they would conduct an intensive review of the state budget, two government watchdog groups said a budget transparency program — put on hold by the Senate — could "save Florida millions of dollars” and revolutionize budget accountability.

The web site, Transparency 2.0, was developed and licensed by the Senate for $4.5 million. But it is scheduled to be shelved at the end of the month as the Senate and the governor’s office feud over which has responsibility for maintaining it and paying the $1 million annual license fee.

“Transparency 2.0 has the ability to help all Floridians and policy makers oversee their state government – and hold it accountable – with a businesslike, searchable and measurable web site,’’ wrote Integrity Florida, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, and the First Amendment Foundation, in a report released Wednesday.

The joint report was requested by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and the office of Gov. Rick Scott after the Herald/Times reported that the program provides a searchable way to track spending on government contracts, salaries and budgets. It was funded by the Senate, but has been kept on hold for the past year.

The report, submitted to the governor and Gaetz late Wednesday, said that if state leaders make the web site accessible to the public, the governor could achieve his goal in budget accountability; policymakers could hold state agencies accountable for their performance; and, state officials “would be forced to justify the way they spend Floridians tax dollars.”

The Senate transferred management of Transparency 2.0 to the governor’s office in June, but the governor’s office has refused to accept ownership because of suspicions about the $5 million no-bid contract given to the company by Steve MacNamara, the former Senate chief of staff who later worked for Scott in a similar position.

A 2011 law requires the governor to create a web portal that makes the state budget and related documents transparent to the public. Last year, legislators put $2.5 million in the governor’s budget to pay for the effort.

The report was released on the same day Sen. Joe Negron, a Palm City Republican and the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, announced the Senate would conduct an “intensive review” of the state budget, including an examination of spending that is renewed each year with little review.

“Transparency 2.0 would enable that intensive review and allow that budget scrutiny to happen,’’ said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. Negron has said he has not seen the transparency program and believes it is being handled by the governor’s office.

The web site was developed by Spider Data Systems, a Tallahassee-based company run by two former legislative budget staff members who patented the software that allows accounting, personnel, contracting and budgeting data to be merged and cross-referenced in a single search. The program lets legislators dig into details of the state’s base budget — such as which programs are automatically continued and which agencies have unfilled vacancies — instead of relying on budget staff , agency officials and lobbyists for the information.

Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation compared the Transparency 2.0 web site to two existing budget accountability web sites now run by the Legislature and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and, in a side-by-side comparison, concluded the Transparency 2.0 site is more comprehensive, easy to use, and provides documents and context that the other two sites don’t offer.

“Transparency 2.0 gives you not just the information but the context for the information — which makes it more meaningful,’’ said Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation. “I am so impressed by it that I think it would be a crime if the governor and the legislature don’t go forward with it.”

Earlier this year Florida’s was given a “D” for its failure to provide online access to government spending data by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. The research found that other states, such as Texas, South Dakota, Massachusetts and Mississippi realized “significant cost savings” when they ramped up the transparency of their budget process to allow for more budget transparency.

The Integrity Florida/FAF report acknowledges the questions raised about the no-bid contract given to Spider Data because of its patented software, but called it “ironic since the ... web site would provide complete sunlight on any such proposals going forward” and “the most detailed and comprehensive history of every state vendor contract available in the system.”

Krassner said that while his organization prefers contracts be competitively bid “this might be the rare exception to the rule where you have patented technology no one else had.”

Meanwhile, neither the governor’s office nor the Senate appear ready to embrace the program even though taxpayers have already spent $4.5 million on it.

Scott’s chief budget officer, Jerry McDaniel, has asked for access to the secure site to review it but his review remains in limbo after the governor’s lawyers have said he may not agree to the boilerplate disclosure required to accept a sign-on, said Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers.

Gaetz’s office said he is reviewing the request for an extension of the contract.

The groups said they will make the report available to the public on Friday.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MaryEllenKlas and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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