Sunday, May 27, 2018
Politics

Florida lawmakers ready to shelve $5M budget-tracking program

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's new legislative leadership team and the 44 new legislators who took the oath of office in Tallahassee last Tuesday pledged to keep close tabs on the state budget and weed out waste in government contracts.

"Let's make sure we're getting value received and the best price," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shortly after being sworn in as the Senate's new president.

But if history is a guide, few will master the task because access to budget information across numerous agency platforms is notoriously complicated and difficult to access.

That could change if a software program quietly developed by a former House budget staffer, licensed by the state Senate under former Senate President Mike Haridopolos and financed with $5 million of taxpayer dollars, is launched instead of being allowed to expire at the end of the year.

Knowledge is power in Tallahassee and the software program, Transparency 2.0, developed and patented by Spider Data Systems, has the power to level the budgetary knowledge game. It also packs another powerful punch: the potential to expose the secrets of government officials and lobbyists who trade in these transactions.

With the click of a mouse, legislators can track how much money lobbyists' clients pull in from state business and which items are tucked into the budget by legislative leaders behind closed doors. They can see in real time where every vacant job is kept, where 496 sole source contracts exist and which contracts are automatically renewed.

The program easily cross-references budgetary, accounting, contracting and personnel data in real time. It shows how much the state and its contractors spend on travel and office supplies and which companies received favorable terms with one agency and less favorable terms with another. And if the governor's office puts it online as part of the requirements of a new transparency law, the public also could access the information.

But the state contract with Spider Data Systems is scheduled to expire Dec. 31 without the program being launched. The deadline comes even though $4.5 million of taxpayer money was spent on it, and Haridopolos, Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater each promised a more open budgeting and contracting process.

"It sounds like an orphan nobody wants," Gaetz told the Times/Herald. He and three other senators were given a 40-minute demonstration of a beta tested version of Transparency 2.0 in September 2011, before all the Florida data was loaded into the system. Gaetz concluded: "the price was extraordinary and the product was underwhelming."

Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a group that advocates for greater transparency in state government, says state officials owe it to the public to launch the Web-based program.

"If $5 million of taxpayer money has been invested in a budget-tracking website, then it should see the light of day," said Krassner, who has not seen the program in operation. "Budget tracking tools like this should be used by policy makers to eliminate wasteful spending. Disclosure is the key to accountability."

Turf battles and distrust over the way Spider Data's no-bid contract was handled by Steve MacNamara, the former chief of staff to Scott and Haridopolos, have muddied its acceptance by current legislative leaders.

MacNamara is close friends with Spider Data's lobbyist, Jim Eaton, who has also established a partnership with one of the program's developers, Anna Mattson, to promote a similar product for local governments.

Despite Haridopolos' early enthusiasm for the program, (in 2010 he appeared on Mike Huckabee's show on Fox News touting it), he and Senate budget leaders kept the program under wraps during his term. A status report on the project submitted in August said the program was ready to use for the 2012 legislative budget meetings. The Senate assigned staff to be part of a beta testing team but failed to follow through on a requirement of the contract: that it provide the developers with access to the House's budget and planning documents.

Gaetz said the Senate transferred management of the program to the governor this summer, according to conforming language MacNamara helped secure in the 2012-13 budget, along with another $2.5 million for transparency programming.

But after MacNamara's resignation from the governor's office in June — after a series of reports in the Times/Herald that showed he steered contracts to friends — the governor's office is not yet willing to take ownership.

"We are in the earliest stages of due diligence," said Adam Hollingsworth, Scott's chief of staff who replaced MacNamara. Hollingsworth is skeptical of the Spider Data program, although he hadn't seen it until a reporter raised questions about it. He has asked the governor's budget director to study the system, determine how it functions and assess the credibility of the data.

"One of the many items we will look at is the method of procurement and if it allows it to be transferred in its current form," Hollingsworth said.

Mattson, a former legislative budget staffer, formed Spider Data Services and developed the software with Sherri Taylor, an information technology and computer systems expert. They are still owed $500,000 for developing the program.

"We recognize that the incoming legislative leaders have the right to set their own priorities, and we look forward to an opportunity to demonstrate the full capabilities of this powerful budget analysis system," Mattson said in a statement.

With Gaetz's approval, the Times/Herald requested access to the system to compare its operation with the existing online transparency programs operated by the Legislature and Atwater.

The Times/Herald compared the search functions of Atwater's FACTs system (facts.fldfs.com) with the Legislature's TransparencyFlorida.gov website and found that the information provided by the Spider Data programs was more comprehensive and complete, and searches were more productive. Details about the state's base budget can be tracked by salaries and benefits; contracts can be searched based on their relationship with planning documents and monitoring reports; and details about contracts are provided in context.

Absent from the program were all House budget data and work papers that would make that chamber's input searchable.

"This administration has not been approached by Spider Data to be a part of their contract," said House Speaker Will Weatherford in a statement. "Any discussions with Spider Data occurred under previous administrations." As speaker of the House, he said, he will "look for ways the House can be more transparent to the public."

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