TALLAHASSEE Open government advocates increased the heat on state officials to unleash access to a budget transparency web site Friday as the Senate president continued to distance himself from the site under his control.
Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced the he was asking Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to develop legislation to create a “user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, web-based transparency tool” for the state budget that could include or replace the system developed by Spider Data Systems.
The state has already spent at least $4.5 million on the Spider Data budget transparency program, called Transparency 2.0, under a contract signed by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos but kept the web site under wraps. The rare, sole-source contract allowed for the company to use its patented technology to merge state budget, contract, personnel and accounting data into a single portal to allow legislators and staff to track how government money is spent.
But the powerful search functions of the web site allow weaken the ability of legislative leaders and budget staffers to control the flow of information in Tallahassee and the program has never been rolled out formally for lawmakers to use.
Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation called upon Gaetz, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford to allow a public demonstration of Transparency 2.0 “so the public can see what $5 million of their money purchased and make an informed judgment about their investment,” said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, in a conference call with reporters on Friday.
Their report, “Budget Transparency of the Sunshine State,” reviewed the functions of the existing TransparencyFlorida.gov web site and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater’s contract search site and concluded the Transparency 2.0 site was far superior.
“What we saw was a web site that, if made public, would give the citizens of Florida, and our state policy makers, the opportunity to see all the spending, find waste and save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers,’’ Krassner said. “Why not allow the public to identify costs savings?”
Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, compared the operation of Transparency 2.0 to a cell phone, while the existing web site offered to the public was like using a rotary phone.
“Transparency 2.0 connects all the dots for me and gave me some dots I wasn’t really expecting,’’ Petersen said, after using the system. “The idea that we would not allow public access to this web site is quite alarming to me.”
Spider Data signed its contract with the Senate in February 2011 when Haridopolos was Senate president and Steve MacNamara was his chief of staff. Gaetz and Sen. Lisbeth Benacquisto were among the senators shown a demonstration of the program in the fall of 2011 when it was ready to launch.
The Senate choose not to make the program available to lawmakers and staff and, in June 2012, drafted a memorandum of understanding to transfer management of the program to Scott. The legislature also included $2.5 million in the 2012-13 budget for the governor to develop a transparency web site for public access that provides all the functions of the Transparency 2.0 system. Scott did not veto the money.