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  1. Opinion

Florida privatization runs off the rails again

Another state agency, another privatization scheme off the rails. The account of how the Florida Division of Blind Services has failed to monitor the agency's private vendors is just one more example for Republican Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, who has been trying to bring sensible reform to the state's privatization spree. Privatization only works well when the agency doing the hiring writes strong, service-oriented contracts and state employees provide effective oversight. Anything less is just government misfeasance.

Ever since then-Gov. Jeb Bush took office in 1999, state government has been moving more toward hiring private vendors to do state business — from handling state park reservations to opening private prisons. And Gov. Rick Scott, a former health care executive, has only accelerated that push, for instance by making it easier for charter school companies to qualify for money that used to be dedicated to public schools. Nearly 60 percent of the state's budget now flows to private coffers.

Republican leaders' premise is that private business — and not a largely unionized government workforce — is better at spotting efficiencies, saving money and improving service, particularly if government contracts have incentives for doing so. But the reality is far less clear.

Government agencies can be outmaneuvered by private vendors or their attorneys. State staff frequently lack the expertise or resources to negotiate solid contracts that detail specific requirements, ultimately impeding contract oversight. And too frequently, state employees doing the monitoring become too cozy with private vendors.

The latest case of privatization gone awry was disclosed by Brittany Alana Davis of the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau on Monday. She found employees for the state's blind services division inspected only one out of 16 private vendors on site last year; and they wrote such poor contracts that vendors were paid based on their number of clients — not on the amount of services they actually delivered — sometimes resulting in a vendor receiving $2,000 for placing a single phone call.

This should provide more ammunition for Atwater, the former Senate president who is now in charge of the state's checkbook as chief financial officer. Since last year he's been pushing to obtain the reasonable authority to review and approve all state contracts over $50,000 in order to validate the scope of the work and ensure that the terms of delivery and enforcement mechanisms are specific. He says the goal would be to provide technical expertise on crafting and enforcing contracts, not to dictate the policies.

So far Atwater has been rebuffed by other government officials who don't like the idea of ceding any authority — even in the name of good government. But the status quo should be unacceptable. Republican Sen. Don Gaetz, at least, apparently understands that. The man set to ascend to the Senate presidency next week co-sponsored Atwater's measure during the last session. In 2013, he should make it a must-pass priority.