Florida legislature writes rules for transparency but won’t follow them

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.

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