Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Politics

Gov. Rick Scott calls for bids to build budget transparency website

TALLAHASSEE — A budget tracking website paid for by Florida taxpayers but never made public will remain on the shelf.

Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that he will seek bids to create a public budget watchdog site, and the vendors of the existing system can get in line with everyone else.

"We have decided to begin a competitive procurement process to contract with a company that best demonstrates their ability to publish Web-based, user-friendly budget data at the lowest cost to taxpayers,'' said Melissa Sellers, communications director for the governor.

The Florida Senate paid $5 million to Spider Data Services to develop Transparency 2.0 for use by the Senate and its staff to monitor the budget, state contracts and personnel services. Although the system was ready to launch in November 2011, it was never unveiled.

A Times/Herald review of Transparency 2.0 shows that, unlike other transparency websites maintained by the Legislature, the governor's office or the chief financial officer, Transparency 2.0 allows for comprehensive and easy data searching for every line item in the budget. The system supplies planning and budget documents, and audit reports as well as contract information and links to personnel expenses.

It also shows which contracts were inserted into the budget by legislative leadership, offers a comprehensive look at billions of dollars in outside contracts and allows for the public to track budget data that today is controlled by agency and legislative staffers.

The governor's office has not ruled out the possibility that Transparency 2.0 may be the platform for the governor's website because Spider Data Services will be allowed to compete with other bidders, Sellers said. The bid process will be open to the public "while also ensuring we save as much taxpayer money as possible" and will begin in the new year, she said. There is no date for its scheduled completion.

State law requires that the governor's office create a budget tracking website and it already maintains a modest system called TransparencyFlorida.gov. But the system has its flaws, including listing 27,922 contracts as "confidential" when a Times/Herald review found that many of those contracts are available to the public through a public records request.

Two government watchdog groups, Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation, have called on Scott to take advantage of the Senate's investment and make Transparency 2.0 the platform for public access.

Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida said he hoped Scott would reconsider his decision to not give the public access to a system, even as he is seeking new bids.

"It's disappointing that Floridians will not have access to the powerful budget tracking website that was built with $5 million in public money,'' he said. "This is a victory for the Tallahassee insiders who will continue to know exactly how government spends our money while Floridians are left in the dark.''

The Senate contract was signed by the former chief of staff Steve MacNamara, who later become the governor's chief of staff. Before MacNamara left the governor's office, the Senate signed a memorandum of understanding transferring management of Transparency 2.0 to the governor but, uneasy about the way the contract was handled, MacNamara's successor, Adam Hollingsworth, refused to sign the agreement.

Legislators included $2.5 million in the 2012-13 budget to pay for increasing transparency of government budgets and contracts, but Scott has not tapped that money.

Bad blood remains between the state and the owners of Spider Data Systems, Anna Mattson and Sherri Taylor. The two women successfully won a $500,000 settlement against the state in 2008 after the House broke a contract with them to develop a Web-based budget and the governor's office developed a Web-based budget that was similar to the functions of their design.

Now, Scott's legal counsel has advised the governor's budget staff not to sign onto the Transparency 2.0 system — to assess how well it works — because they fear they could be sued for intellectual property theft.

Scott's office will start accepting bids for the new website after the first of the year. Meanwhile, Senate President Don Gaetz has assigned his staff to also look at creating a public website for legislative review.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.

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