TALLAHASSEE — Determined to prove that legislators are committed to government transparency, a Senate committee convened Thursday to explore ways to give the public more details about the state's $70 billion budget.
They made little progress.
The Senate Government Operations and Accountability Committee took up the issue after rejecting a $5 million budget transparency program — known as Transparency 2.0 — that was negotiated in secret.
The committee heard a staff report that nine state-run websites portend to offer a level of transparency, but they require the public to go to several of them to get a complete budget picture.
Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, an independent ethics watchdog group, told the committee that even with numerous websites there are elements of the budget that remain off limits to the public. Among them: the Legislature's contracts, budget planning documents of state agencies and legislative salary data.
The solution, Krassner said, is for the state to move to open data, allowing the public access to many of its information databases.
"Let's free the data,'' Krassner said. "That doesn't involve significant cost. In fact, it probably involves cost savings…. You have all these websites powered by the same types of databases, but the databases are not public."
Rather than have the state maintain multiple sites, the state could "unlock the power of these sites to the private sector — mobile app developers, IT professionals in Florida ...,'' he said. "That would be a job creation strategy.''
But some on the committee bristled at that idea.
"Yeah, it'd create jobs, but the return on that job creation is negligible,'' said Sen. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla, who is also chairman of the general government appropriations subcommittee. "It's a gross expense and a waste of taxpayer dollars and I'm not willing to do it."
He said he was "not in favor for one moment" of making the Legislature's working documents available for the public to see. "I'm sorry, if the public doesn't have any greater faith and confidence in my judgment than that, then they don't have to re-elect me,'' he said.
Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat and committee chairman, asked Krassner what would be the elements of a good transparency website. Krassner urged the Senate to include budget planning documents, all details of the budget process, all expenditures, all contracts data and all personnel information, including salaries, travel and other expenses
Each of those items is now available on the Transparency 2.0 website, which the Senate paid $5 million to license and develop but never made available to the public because of what Senate leaders now consider a flawed contract.
The website also provided access to every line item in the budget that linked to a contract and allowed users to drill down into the contract details. No existing website shows that level of budget detail.
Ring said that no senator on the committee had seen the site because of problems with the contract, including a failure to give the state ownership of the IP address.
"The product is powerful. It's much more user friendly than any of the sites available today,'' Krassner said.
But other members of the committee called the contract, signed between former Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Spider Data Services "a debacle."
Reached at the Capitol on Thursday, Haridopolos defended the contract but would not explain why he refused to make it available to senators when it was ready to launch in December 2011. Instead, the website sat idle until the contract with the Senate ran out in December 2012.
"I thought it was a really good idea and it's out there and they are going to make the judgment,'' said Haridopolos, who was in Tallahassee teaching a University of Florida class. "I think we had the most transparent budget process ever."
Ring said his goal is to get the state from nine transparency websites to one. He said he has not given up hope that the system the state paid for could be used if the contract is renegotiated.
"We haven't lost it. I'm hopeful we've just suspended it,'' Ring told the Times/Herald. "Clearly, they built a site that people think is a good site, but they did an agreement that's not good for Florida or for the taxpayers and we have to resolve that."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.