By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida has spent nearly $5 million setting up a website intended to shed light on the state budget. The website is supposed to show, among other things, how much money state contractors receive.
However, Mary Ellen Klas of The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times reports that the program is set to expire before it is even launched — and lawmakers might just let it expire.
Experts have warned that without a transparent and accountable budget process, the state could lose millions, if not billions, to fraud and waste.
In an effort to address this problem, state Senate leadership began the first phase of a program aimed at shedding light on who gets money in the state budget every year.
Knowledge is power in Tallahassee and the software program, Transparency 2.0, developed and patented by Spider Data Systems, has the power to level the budgetary knowledge game. It also packs another powerful punch: the potential to expose the secrets of government officials and lobbyists who trade in these transactions.
With the click of a mouse, legislators can track how much money lobbyists’ clients pull in from state business, and which items are tucked into the budget by legislative leaders behind closed doors. They can see in real time where every vacant job is kept, where 496 sole source contracts exist, and which contracts are automatically renewed.
The program easily cross-references budgetary, accounting, contracting and personnel data in real time. It shows how much the state and its contractors spend on travel, and on office supplies and which companies received favorable terms with one agency and less favorable terms with another. And, if the governor’s office puts it online as part of the requirements of a new transparency law, the public could access the information too.
But the state contract with Spider Data Systems is scheduled to expire Dec. 31 without the program ever being launched. The deadline comes even though $4.5 million of taxpayer money was spent on it, and Haridopolos, Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater each promised a more open budgeting and contracting process.
Earlier this year, a report found that Florida’s budget transparency website was difficult to use and does not provide visitors with the ability to search expenditures by keyword or activity, tax expenditures, or off-budget agencies.
As it stands, though, leaders in the state Legislature remain underwhelmed with the program, even though budget transparency was something sought after by the previous Florida Senate president, Mike Haridopolos. According to the Herald/Times, Haridopolos was excited about the program, but incoming leaders have been less impressed.
At present, legislative staffers are still being trained to use the system and staffers are still inputting data.
Of the budget transparency program, newly elected state Senate President Don Gaetz told the Herald/Times that “the price was extraordinary and the product was underwhelming.”
Haridopolos also promised to bring transparency to the economic incentive money the state gives to businesses in the hopes that they create jobs in Florida. However, there was only a recent accidental leak of some of that information, and a truly transparent system was never created during Haridopolos’ term as Senate president.