Advocates say state lawmakers in Tallahassee need to offer more transparency. (Photo by Jonathon Colman.)

By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation are asking state lawmakers to release a program that would make the state’s budget more transparent.

The program, which was created by a company called Spider Data Systems, has already cost taxpayers in Florida about $5 million. It was supposed to be made public sometime soon, but lawmakers may pull the plug on the program before it even launches.

Dan Krassner of Integrity Florida, an ethics watchdog in Tallahassee, has said the program, known as Transparency 2.0, would make substantive scrutiny of the budget and state contracts much easier.

According to The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times:

The web site was developed by Spider Data Systems, a Tallahassee-based company run by two former legislative budget staff members who patented the software that allows accounting, personnel, contracting and budgeting data to be merged and cross-referenced in a single search. The program lets legislators dig into details of the state’s base budget — such as which programs are automatically continued and which agencies have unfilled vacancies — instead of relying on budget staff , agency officials and lobbyists for the information.

No other transparency system has had the same qualities or has been this easy to use, which is why advocacy groups are clamoring for the program to become public.

The Herald/Times and Integrity Florida were able to get a glimpse of the what kinds of information groups and journalists would be able to unearth if legislators made the program public.

Here are some of the things Mary Ellen Klas of the Herald/Times identified:

  • The Transparency 2.0 site is the only one of the three sites that: provides comprehensive information about all public expenditures in a single website, uses “plain language” categories, allows one-click searches, conducts full-text searches of any part of a vendor name or program or related keyword, has an easy report download function, includes legislative planning documents, includes agency budget documents, includes governor budget documents and legislative budget documents, and includes management services personnel system data.
  • The only functions provided by all three budget transparency sites are: payments to vendors and financial services accounting system data. The only function provided by the CFO’s website and not the others was social media sharing.
  • For the 2012-13 budget year, state agencies made budget requests that include the use of $1.3 billion in federal stimulus dollars and more than $21.3 billion in federal government funds. The source of each of these funds can be tracked and compared to previous years.
  • Florida’s $70 billion budget funds 118,426 state government jobs, including 9,284 temporary workers. How much the state spend on salaries and benefits for these temporary worker can be traced to the department level.
  • There are  10,803 vacant jobs in Florida government. The agencies with the most vacancies: criminal justice and corrections with 4,368.
  • State agencies have signed 20,199 vendor contracts with a commitment to spend $18.5 billion so far this budget year.

This week, Florida Senate Appropriations Chair Sen. Joe Negron said he wanted an intensive review of the state budget and various large state contracts. However, he did not mention whether this transparency program would also be a part of his plans.

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.