It defies common sense that the nation's fourth-largest state has such a loosely structured system to evaluate and oversee almost $51 billion in contracts for goods and services. Now Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has proposed creating a uniform set of policies to make state contracts more accountable, transparent and cost-effective. Atwater's thoughtful proposals could save Floridians billions of dollars in wasted spending. Those proposals will be heard in legislative committees today and Tuesday, and state lawmakers interested in making government more accountable and efficient should embrace them.
About 57 percent of the state budget is spent annually on vendors to provide various goods and services across Florida. But during a recent meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Atwater said state agencies have their own unaccountable hodgepodge of rubrics in place to determine the service to be rendered, negotiate the contract, monitor the delivery of the service and pursue breaches of contracts with vendors. In a random review of 364 contracts worth more than $1 million in 2010-11, Atwater's auditors discovered 26 percent had at least one deficiency, putting some $13 billion in public money potentially at risk. Over the past year, Atwater's office has recovered almost $31 million in settlements from vendors due to faulty contracts.
There are several reasons for the glitches, including that some agency negotiators are inexperienced in dealing with complex contracts with seasoned vendors. Atwater wants lawmakers to give his office authority to evaluate and recommend changes to the state's procurement laws; train and certify program managers; clearly define performance measures expected in state contracts; and require all state agencies to perform a uniform cost and price analysis before the awarding of a contract.
Atwater also wants the reasonable authority to review and approve all state contracts over $50,000 in order to validate the scope of the work, clearly define the service being delivered and assess the performance of the contract. Currently, the chief financial officer writes the checks but has no authority over state contracts unless there is a dispute requiring the settling of a claim. It only makes sense that if the chief financial officer is expected to defend and settle contractual disputes, the office should play a more proactive role in overseeing the efficacy of a vendor contract before it is signed.
Companion bills (SB 1626 and HB 1409) sponsored by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Ben Albritton, R-Bartow, would give Atwater the enhanced authority he needs to bring a uniform state contract process into the modern era. This is not a power grab; state agencies still would decide which vendors they want and write the contracts. But it only makes sense that there are common practices and reviews — and that the chief financial officer has the proper tools and authority to protect the public's money.