Information is power. And for too long, the ability of Florida's legislative leaders to control access to budget analysis tools has meant just a few powerful lawmakers make the lion's share of decisions. That makes it too easy for special interests or individual legislators to get their way without the public watching. Now a controversial new software program financed with $4.5 million in tax dollars could change that — if state leaders don't shelve it first. That should only be an option if legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have a better idea to replace it.
The so-called Transparency 2.0 project is not without controversy. It originated in former Senate President Mike Haridopolos' office when former Senate chief of staff Steve MacNamara, who later served as the governor's chief of staff, arranged the no-bid contract for Spider Data Systems. The software firm was started by a former House budget staffer who had hired a close MacNamara friend as its lobbyist.
But the product the Senate bought has proven to be impressive. Using a software design that Spider Data said it patented in 2003, the firm has created a program that allows a user to instantly connect the dots across various government databases to see how the state's dollars are spent, who requested the money and who ultimately benefits.
A demonstration, at the Times editorial board's request, showed that with just a couple of clicks of the mouse, users can learn which private firms won contracts for each budget line item; determine personnel costs for each state job; and track how each agency spends its money, whether for postage and gasoline or travel or office rent. On a single screen, users can also determine exactly where budget requests originate — be it with the governor, a state agency or the Legislature. It's also possible to see which items are last-minute additions, almost always an indicator of lawmakers doing the bidding for a special interest or campaign contributor.
Tracking down anything close to the same information under current public records procedures, even with Florida's enviable public records laws, could take days if not weeks or months. And that's assuming the record seeker knew exactly what to seek. Such a cumbersome process is what has allowed so few to control so much for so long in Tallahassee. For years, legislative leaders have had access to similar tools and analyses — either through easy access to the institutional memories of professional legislative staff or through the Legislature's own budgeting software that is not accessible to the public. But less influential lawmakers, much less taxpayers, are in the dark.
So far, no one in Tallahassee — not Scott nor Senate President Don Gaetz nor House Speaker Will Weatherford — are willing to commit to extending the Spider Data contract that ends Dec. 31. But now that the sun has shone on the budget process, putting it back in the shadows should not be an option. Scott, Gaetz and Weatherford should either find favorable terms to extend the project or commit to the same transparency through another publicly accessible tool. Anything less is an affront to open government and Floridians who expect nothing less.