Legislators push back on efforts to make state documents open to public

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater may be hitting a nerve with lawmakers and top state leaders.

In his quest to post every contract in state government on a public website, Atwater is getting push back from House leadership, which wants to exempt all contracts handled by every Cabinet agency, including Atwater’s.

In the midst of budget negotiations last week, House leaders proposed a budget conforming bill that would halt Atwater’s efforts to require that every agency post its contracts on a secure public website, hosted by his office.

Instead, the House wants to require that only the governor’s agencies be required to disclose the information and exempt all contracts handled by the Department of Financial Services, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Attorney General and the judicial branch, including state attorneys.

House Speaker Will Weatherford believes it is a separation of powers issue. He said he does not believe the CFO should control a website that posts data on other Cabinet agencies.

“It’s not about whether or not the documents should be public. Everybody agrees on that,” House Speaker Will Weatherford told reporters on Monday. “It’s who should control the information and when it’s released.”

But Atwater says that since he launched the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System website last June, state agencies have voluntarily posted about 38,000 contracts for the public to inspect. Among them: 3,583 contracts from the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and another 1,129 from the attorney general’s Department of Legal Affairs. He also has no control over the contracts, as agencies upload them to the site themselves.

“There have been no complaints,” Atwater told the Herald/Times last week. “They are all pleasantly participating. I’m not sure why we take a step backwards.”

Government watchdog groups say the push back from the House is only one of a series of attempts by legislators this session to shield from the sunshine many documents that are currently public. Barbara Petersen, director of the First Amendment Foundation, said that legislators are moving dozens of amendments on bills in the final days of session attempting to exempt data and records from public view.

Florida agencies spend about $52 billion a year in taxpayer money on contracts and grants with private companies. Atwater wants legislators to require the agencies to post their contracts on the website so that the public has a single place to inspect them and can hold agencies accountable for getting the best deal for the public.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said she posts her contracts on her own website but doesn’t want to be compelled to post to Atwater’s site.

"It has nothing to do with transparency. We are all independent, it’s a separation of powers, it really is,’’ he said. “If you want to say require me to post it on my website, that’s fine. But me to report to another constitutional officer, makes no sense. And I don’t like the word ’require’.”

Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam said that he also doesn’t want to be required to post his contracts on Atwater’s website. Putnam and Atwater, both Republicans, are seen as potential rivals in a 2018 primary campaign for governor.

“I support the Legislature’s efforts to strengthen the CFO’s ability to bring greater light to agency contracts, but separation of powers must be preserved in that effort, as well as the independence of Florida’s elected Cabinet,’’ Putnam said in a statement.

Atwater believes that if the House language becomes law it will be a setback, but he will post every contract to his website even without the mandate.

“As long as I’m in this office, any contract that we negotiate will be there,’’ he said.

Other efforts to shield records include:

•  HB 249 and SB 1260 creates a public record exemption for any email address of anyone who is a registered voter that is obtained by any state, county or municipal agency, thereby exempting public officials who attempt to skirt public meeting laws by communicating via email. The measure is up for a vote in the House on Wednesday.

•  An amendment to SB 1024, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, would make it a misdemeanor for anyone to receive confidential data relating to unemployment claims, even if an agency accidentally turned over the information. Reporters who are leaked information from a whistleblower, for example, could be charged with a crime just for receiving the documents.

•  SB 2, the Senate’s sweeping ethics reform bill, opens the door for any public official who wants to avoid disclosing embarrassing financial information on their financial disclosure forms to create a blind trust to hold their assets. The measure also creates a new loophole for public officials who want to amend their financial disclosure forms by giving them 30 days to change the form.

•  The Senate Rules Committee on Monday approved a bill, SB 1680, to prevent any interview with a witness in a child abuse case to be recorded or maintained as a public record.

The exemptions come just months after Senate President Don Gaetz cancelled a transparency program that was supposed to make budgeting and contracting documents more accessible to lawmakers.

During weekend budget negotiations, legislative leaders made decisions behind closed doors to insert projects into the budget without consulting rank and file members, or even committee chairmen.

Late Friday, for example, a $500,000 project for the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa was tucked into the budget by the Senate, even though it wasn’t included in either the House or Senate budgets passed on the floor.

“I don’t know where it originated,” said Rep. Ed Hooper, R-Clearwater, the vice chair of the budget subcommittee on economic development during the negotiations on Sunday.

Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said he hopes the Senate stands firm “against the House secret contracts plan.”

“It’s disappointing to see a last minute maneuver for vendor contract secrecy led by the Florida House without opposition from Speaker Weatherford," he said. “All government contracts to spend taxpayer money should be posted online for the public to see."

Herald/Times Tallahassee reporters Katie Sanders and Michael Van Sickler contributed to this report.