Tuesday, February 20, 2018
Politics

Task force faces big hurdles to save state billions

TALLAHASSEE — If Florida government truly were efficient, universities would offer a full complement of classes all summer. Judges would be given more flexibility when sentencing offenders. Inmates would get vocational training and literacy skills in prison. And legislators would not pass laws that tie the hands of state officials when negotiating contracts.

These are just some of the recommendations offered up Wednesday by the constitutionally created Government Efficiency Task Force, a 15-member panel required to meet every four years to make money-saving recommendations to the governor, Legislature and the Florida Supreme Court.

Many of the ideas — such as year-round universities — have been on the rule books before but have been whittled down by the Legislature.

Indeed, Florida's 160-member Legislature, and its practice of allowing monied special interest to dictate its policies, became the indirect punching bag of many of the task force recommendations.

The task force is appointed by the governor, House speaker and Senate president. Tucked in its 250 pages of recommendations are numerous examples of barriers that prevent the state from saving billions of dollars. Those barriers are erected by legislators and often grow out of turf battles between agencies and industries.

Consider the proposal that to reduce repeat offenders in prison — now 33 percent — more emphasis should be given on providing vocational training, education and literacy programs which have been shown to reduce recidivism. The state now spends $19,000 a year on each inmate and devotes only 1 percent of the prison budget to inmate education. Or the suggestion that judges be given flexibility when sentencing criminals based on an inmate's risk of returning to crime.

Sen. Mike Bennett, a Bradenton Republican and member of the task force, said the recommendations are good ones but tricky to get out of the Republican Legislature.

"In the quest of not looking soft on the crime, the Florida Legislature — which I've been a proud member of for many years — seems to have gone a little bit overboard,'' he said. "A lot of these recommendations have come up last year and in the past," but they don't get addressed because "the legislation we run is lobby driven — industry driven — instead of what's best for the people of the state of Florida."

The task force noted that because of exceptions written by legislators into the law, the Department of Management Services is barred from seeking competitive bids for legal services, health services, artistic services, lectures, training and education services and substance abuse and mental health contracts — services estimated at $8.4 billion a year.

Legislators also carved out exceptions for 32 vendors whose services don't have to go through the state's web-based vendor database known as MyFloridaMarketPlace.

Task force chairman Abe Uccello said the task force recommendations, if adopted, could save the state as much as $3 billion a year. He said he is confident Gov. Rick Scott will embrace the proposals and "handed the baton" to David Wilkins, whom Gov. Rick Scott has assigned to review state contracts and procedures to squeeze out efficiencies. Wilkins heads the state Department of Children and Families.

"Some of the ideas we're already doing,'' Wilkins told the committee, as he ticked off a list of eight initiatives he and other agencies will start implementing this summer.

Among Wilkins' goals: consolidate hiring and human resource management throughout state government; consolidate lease management, vehicle usage and computer and cell phone contracts; get out of contracts earlier and negotiate savings more often; and offer monetary incentives to high-performing state workers.

Bennett chastised the governor's office for not working aggressively on any issue last session except the PIP auto insurance reform "even though they had other missions." He suggested Scott must persuade the House speaker and the Senate president "that your priorities are their priorities" if he wants the efficiency ideas to survive.

"Without having that coordination, it's not going to happen,'' Bennett warned. "You will not overcome the lobby corps on the other side. So you have to do it together and you have to have the political courage to know that you have to go against this particular industry or this particular lobby group."

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