Monday, November 20, 2017
Politics

Florida's departing fiscal watchdog used public scrutiny as a weapon

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TALLAHASSEE — For all the talk of shrinking government and making it work like a business, there is one man in Tallahassee who knows exactly why that talk is folly.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who stepped down on Friday after serving 17 years in state government, the last six as the state's fiscal watchdog, knows where every penny of the state's $83 billion budget goes. He also knows where to find the waste — and he's tried to expose it.

Florida will spend more than $60 billion this year hiring outside contractors to do state work. But, as Atwater found when he took the job in 2011, state agencies often don't hold vendors accountable for the services they agreed to provide. Agencies allow them to charge for things not included in the bids, fail to recover damages when the vendor won't complete a task correctly or on time, and renew contracts when a vendor fails.

"You don't have to go far to track that back to a lobbyist who had a client," Atwater explained.

In other words, unlike a business, Florida government gets lobbied. Companies big and small, nonprofit and public, hire lobbyists to use political influence and cozy relationships to give them an advantage in the contracting process. Working in silos, agencies make billions in financial decisions using a patchwork of inconsistent standards, often with little oversight, and the process costs taxpayers.

Atwater, whose office pays the bills, made it his mission to try to change that — by exposing the state's expenses to the sunlight and posting all state contracts online.

The effort won national awards, saved taxpayers millions and made transparency in contracting the new Florida standard. It is the lasting legacy of his nearly two decades of public service that spanned from a stint on the North Palm Beach Village Council to the Legislature and executive branch. But the intransigence of a slow-moving bureaucracy and the influence of a powerful lobbying corps hired by corporate interests have stymied Atwater from achieving even more success.

Atwater, 59, retired to become vice president of initiatives and CFO at Florida Atlantic University. In an interview with the Times/Herald last week, he outlined what more needs to be done to make state government work more effectively and why he believes Florida's sunshine laws are essential to protecting taxpayers' billions.

Florida has "some of the most advanced sunshine laws and public disclosure laws in the country" and, rather than weaken them, he said they "should absolutely be protected" because they allow for the public to trust their government.

"Transparency makes us better because we understand that the very people we have asked for this privilege will evaluate us without any hindrance," he said.

"Would I have preferred to not fill out a financial disclosure form? Absolutely. But if that allows the public to know that there is nothing within those documents that they would ever wonder if there is any decision I was making, based upon what I might gain from that, then that outweighs the inconvenience and effort to express that."

A former banker who was elected CFO after serving in the Legislature for 10 years, including as Senate president, Atwater has spent a career carefully picking his battles while also not being afraid to mount a fight.

He helped install a system that capped annual rate increases at state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. at 10 percent and pushed for insurers to lower rates in the wake of reduced reinsurance costs. He backed legislation last spring to protect consumers against surprise medical bills from emergency care, and ordered life insurers to use the U.S. Social Security Administration's Death Master File to pay on policies dating back to 1992.

He pushed back against Gov. Rick Scott when the governor attempted to dictate the appointment of the state's insurance commissioner, and he stood his ground after the governor unilaterally decided to replace Gerald Bailey as head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement in 2014 without public discussion or a vote.

"He brought the position of CFO into transparency and openness," said Mike Fasano, Pasco County tax collector and former state senator who served with Atwater. "He was able to do that when special interests, the Legislature and the governor were fighting him every step of the way. And he does that in such a gentlemanlike manner."

It was Atwater's time in the Legislature that helped inform his perspective on the power of the special interests in manipulating the multibillion-dollar enterprise of state government.

As Senate president, he watched as the most powerful Tallahassee lobbyists quietly tucked provisions into the finished budget to favor their clients through so-called budget "proviso" language. He confronted budget staffers and asked how provisions that were intended to help medical device companies, charter school companies and transportation contractors arrived in the budget language without any public debate or hearing.

"I'd say, 'Did the agency want this? No? Then who did want this?' " Atwater recalled in a 2013 interview with the Times/Herald. "They'd throw out the name of a lobbyist, and so I'd cross it off. And cross it off and cross it off."

When he got to the CFO's office, tracking the trajectory of millions of dollars of murky contracts wasn't any easier.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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