TALLAHASSEE -- Florida’s lawmakers say they want to make the state’s $70 billion budget process more transparent, but when it comes to handling contracts and disclosing state salaries, neither Senate President Don Gaetz nor House Speaker Will Weatherford is quite ready to require the Legislature be held to the same standards that it imposes on state agencies.
State law imposes strict rules for no-bid and sole source contracts in state government, requiring any contract over $250,000 be put out to bid and any sole source vendor meet strict requirements. But the Legislature has exempted itself from those rules.
There are nearly 33,400 contracts listed on the chief financial officer’s website with data on who gets paid for them and how much each vendor collects from taxpayers. The Legislature does not list any of its contracts on the public site.
Anyone working for state government in an agency or state university has his salary posted for all to see on Gov. Rick Scott’s FloridaHasARighttoKnow.com website. But there is no salary information for the Legislature and its 1,530 employees. Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, make it available only upon request.
This doesn’t please Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, himself a former Republican Senate president from North Palm Beach.
“I don’t think the Legislature should be exempting itself from the laws it is placing on other agencies,’’ Atwater said last week. “There are many of us who point to Washington [D.C.] and say, ‘Why do they keep passing laws that they don’t hold themselves accountable for?’ Well, we have the same opportunity here in Florida.”
Since August, the Senate has spent $101,000 hiring four vendors to provide “personal services,” including $30,000 paid to Country First Consulting, the company of former Eustis state Sen. Carey Baker. But not one of those contracts is available for the public to inspect on the legislatively controlled TransparencyFlorida.gov website.
Between September 2011 and May 2012, the House spent nearly $255,000 for equipment rented from OCE North America and $20,000 to hire a company called Pappas Consulting Group. Neither contract is on the public websites.
And in a twist of irony, the Senate paid $5 million since February 2011 for a sole source contract to build a budget transparency website. The website was never launched or made public but, if it had been updated and available, it would have allowed the public to see all of its legislative contracts, as well as the 499 other sole source contracts that add up to $61.9 million.
Weatherford spokesman Ryan Duffy said Thursday the House is in the process of working with the CFO’s office to put the legislature’s contracts online and “is open to giving any solution to bring contracting requirements for the Legislature in line with the executive branch a fair hearing.“
Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate is in the process of developing legislation “that would further increase web-based transparency” for the state’s budget, 56 percent of which is spent on outside contractors. But, she added, the Senate is not ready to require that the Legislature follow the same contracting rules as state agencies.
“One legislature can’t bind a future legislature; as such, we don’t believe that we can pass laws that would restrict the internal operations of the body,’’ Betta said.