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Why the secrecy? Florida and other states slow to reveal Covid-19 spending | Editorial

Taxpayers deserve to see how states are spending billions fighting coronavirus pandemic

Taxpayers are spending billions to confront the coronavirus on the front lines ― buying medical supplies, protective equipment and other essential gear. But even months into the pandemic, many states including Florida are withholding details about what they’re buying and who they’re paying, according to a new, exhaustive survey by the Associated Press. This secrecy only invites profiteering and corruption, and it’s time the states accounted for this monumental public expense.

The scramble began in March as the scope of the outbreak became increasingly clear and as the nation’s mayors and governors stepped forward to act in the absence of federal leadership from Washington. An Associated Press survey of all 50 states found a hodgepodge of public information about the purchase of everything from masks and gowns to protective equipment for hospital and emergency workers. In many cases, the shortage of supplies forced states to compete for essential equipment, driving up prices. Some communities (including Hillsborough County) even opened drop-off sites to receive donated materials from the private sector.

The rush was understandable, given the public health threat posed by the highly contagious virus, and states had no choice but to suspend normal purchasing procedures to cope with this emergency. But as the AP found in its survey, many states have released only a sliver of information about what they have bought, from whom and the price.

Some states told the AP that technological barriers prevented them from posting more information. That’s a dodge, belied by the handful of states that have issued comprehensive spending reports. What it really reflects is a low priority for transparency.

Other states offered no explanation for why they weren’t releasing purchasing records. An AP request in late April and early May yielded figures from 44 states showing they had ordered or spent more than $6 billion collectively on virus-related materiel. The AP received nothing from Florida and a handful of other states, and some provided no timeline for releasing the information.

Beyond the public having the right to know who is pocketing public money, these spending reports have practical value. The disclosure helps keep vendors accountable — both for keeping their prices in check and delivering as promised. They give other states a glimpse of the national market. And it’s a tool for checking connections between elected officials, public purchasing agents and manufacturers and suppliers in the private sector. That oversight function is no small thing, with many government offices still closed, officials working from home and public meetings being conducted remotely.

Illinois, as the AP reported, has one of the most detailed tracking websites in the country. The database reports cumulative spending by the week, and includes search functions to document who is being paid and what is being bought. The public can see everything from multi-million dollar contracts for surgical gowns to $47.42 invoices for handheld sprayers. This is taxpayer money and Illinois is a model for accounting for every cent.

Illinois Comptroller Susana Mendoza also told the AP her state’s website served a broader purpose. "(It’s) like a pathway to rebuilding trust in government,” she said. That’s a critical point to remember as the nation reopens and prepares for a possible second wave.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news