1. Opinion

Editorial: Sharper eye needed on state contracts

State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater
State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater
Published Mar. 8, 2013

It is a common refrain among conservative politicians that government should be managed like a business. But sensible efforts by Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater to introduce greater accountability into the way the state negotiates more than $50 billion in private sector contracts and grants has run into difficulty with Gov. Rick Scott and business lobbyists. Atwater wants the Legislature to allow his office to require pre-audits of government contracts to ensure they are properly negotiated and written to protect taxpayer dollars. It is a reasonable approach, and the governor ought not be so protective of his turf.

In a recent meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, Atwater noted that most of the state's $70.2 billion budget is tied up in $10 billion on contracts and $40 billion in dedicated spending grants to vendors for specified services. But the state negotiates these deals through a hodge-podge of 3,200 contract and grant managers spread over 33 agencies. And those managers have different levels of experience, use different standards and could use an independent set of eyes reviewing their work before any deals are signed. Last year, Atwater's office reviewed a sample of 600 contracts awarded across state government and found glaring problems with 46 percent of the agreements, putting at least $23 billion at risk. His office also discovered contracts, some into seven figures, that were so vaguely worded it was difficult to determine what service was supposed to be delivered.

Atwater is not seeking to approve contracts awarded by agencies that report to the governor, which would be an intrusion. His thoughtful reforms would create a uniform standard of protocols for all state contracts and permit his office to pre-audit contracts to ensure they are properly negotiated and structured. Is that too much to ask?

Yet the CFO's rational reforms, which were embraced by Atwater's predecessor, Alex Sink, have been met with resistance by business interests who prefer the status quo. The governor's concerns also are unwarranted. Bringing some coherence, accountability and credibility to the way the state does business hardly qualifies as a crass political power grab.

Atwater is once again attempting to win legislative approval for his contract pre-audit proposal, which could save the state billions of dollars. He may not win over the Capitol's lobbyist influence-peddlers, but a Republican-controlled Legislature and governor's office so committed to running government like a business should want the chief financial officer of the nation's fourth-largest state to have the tools to perform his job and protect taxpayer money.