She added that if senators “determine that changes to the Senate’s contracting process should be made, or that the names and salaries of their staff members should be posted online in addition to the personnel and salary data that is already available either online or by request, Sen. Gaetz will certainly consider implementing those recommendations” over the next two years.
As a former Senate president, Atwater first realized the extent to which the Florida budget process was being manipulated by outside vendors when he watched as the most powerful Tallahassee lobbyists quietly tucked provisions into the finished budget to favor their clients.
It was 2009, the same year that a grand jury had strongly criticized legislative leaders for their budget process and House Speaker Ray Sansom resigned under fire. Atwater and his budget chairman, former Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, sat down with the staff directors of the appropriations committees and asked them to explain how each piece of the so-called budget “proviso” language got placed into the budget.
“It was an eye-opener,’’ Atwater recalled in an interview with the Herald/Times. He described how language intended to help “medical device companies, education companies…transportation” vendors had been placed into the budget outside of the public debate.
“I’d say ‘Did the agency want this? No? Then who did want this?’ ’’ Atwater said. “They’d throw out the name of a lobbyist and so I’d cross it off.”
Atwater helped write the bill to create the TransparencyFlorida website and, as CFO, initiated the effort to post state contracts online. Now, the Legislature’s modest website is in place in theory, but information is incomplete. Atwater concedes that getting lawmakers and lobbyists to change will take time.
“They are going to be forever issues,’’ he said.
MaryEllenKlas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas