Tuesday, June 19, 2018
Politics

Senate President Don Gaetz suggests Florida should replace budget transparency program

TALLAHASSEE — Open government advocates increased the heat on state officials to unlock access to a budget transparency website Friday as Senate President Don Gaetz continued to distance himself from the site under his control.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced he is asking Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to develop legislation to create a "user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, Web-based transparency tool" for the state budget that could include or replace the system developed by Spider Data Systems.

The state has already spent at least $4.5 million on the Spider Data budget transparency program, called Transparency 2.0, under a contract entered into by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos in 2011. The sole-source contract allowed for the company to use its patented technology to merge state budget, contract, personnel and accounting data into a single portal to allow legislators and staff to track how government money is spent.

But the powerful search functions of the website weaken the ability of legislative leaders and budget staffers to control the flow of information in Tallahassee, and the program has never been rolled out formally for lawmakers to use.

Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation called upon Gaetz, Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford to allow a public demonstration of Transparency 2.0 "so the public can see what $5 million of their money purchased," said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, in a conference call with reporters Friday.

Their report, "Budget Transparency of the Sunshine State," reviewed the functions of the existing TransparencyFlorida.gov website and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's contract search site, concluding that the Transparency 2.0 site is far superior.

"What we saw was a website that, if made public, would give the citizens of Florida, and our state policy makers, the opportunity to see all the spending, find waste and save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers,'' Krassner said.

Barbara Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation, compared the operation of Transparency 2.0 to a cell phone, while the existing website offered to the public was like using a rotary phone.

"Transparency 2.0 connects all the dots for me and gave me some dots I wasn't really expecting,'' Petersen said.

After the Times/Herald disclosed that lawmakers were poised to shelve the program when the contract with the vendors expires at the end of the month, Gaetz scheduled a meeting with the Spider Data System developers on Thursday to ask them questions.

In a letter to the Senate on Friday, Gaetz said he learned that the Senate does not own the software and must pay an additional $1 million a year to continue its contract with the vendor to keep the site current — information spelled out in the 2011 contract.

Gaetz said he concluded Transparency 2.0 "contains many valuable features, as do a variety of products and services brought before the Legislature each year. The question we must answer is which product will provide the most value to the taxpayers of Florida."

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