May 14, 2013

State announces new initiatives to crack down on fraud

Fighting fraud that costs the state millions of dollars and impacts poor residents who rely on public assistance payments,The Department of Children & Families on Tuesday announced a new system to crack down on cheaters.

“Florida has the highest per capita rate of reported identity theft nationally,” with more than 70 percent of ID theft tied to government-related services, said DCF Secretary David Wilkins, speaking at a a press conference with Deputy CFO Jay Etheridge and Tallahassee Police Chief  Dennis Jones.

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April 12, 2013

Explaining Florida's budget surplus

Florida lawmakers are doing something they haven't done in years: adding money to state programs.

The recession sent the state into multi-billion-dollar budget shortfalls that led to big cuts in education and state government payrolls.

But this year, lawmakers have money to play with. Gov. Rick Scott has proposed a budget of more than $74 billion for the fiscal year that starts in July. That's about a $4-billion increase in spending over the current year.

So where did the extra money come from?

In his State of the State address last month, Scott credited two years of cutting taxes and red tape so businesses could grow.

“Because we made the hard choices over the last two years, we are able to make the smart choices now to keep our economy growing,” Scott said. “We have a projected budget surplus for the first time in six years.”

As the House budget chief, Lakeland Republican Rep. Seth McKeel will be a key player in crafting the state budget. He began his tenure as a lawmaker in 2006, as the economy was starting its descent.

“We have had to make unfortunate reductions over the last five years in important areas like transportation, education and public safety when we didn't have enough funds,” McKeel said. “We actually had some scenarios where we had to make up (for) budget deficits.”

Of course, the reasons for this turnaround in the state's finances vary depending on who you ask.

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April 10, 2013

Senate unanimously approves $74.3 billion budget

In an unexpected move Wednesday, the Senate unanimously approved its proposed $74.3 billion budget.

"It's a tribute to the bipartisanship that we've seen in the Senate during the budget process," Senate President Don Gaetz said.

The spending plan includes a $1.2 billion increase to public-school funding, $70 million for Everglades restoration and 3 percent across-the-board pay raises for state employees, many of whom haven't seen their salaries increased in six years. 

"I think that this budget takes care of the basics," Senate Budget Chairman Joe Negron said. "Things that we haven't been able to take care of and respond to in the past, given the challenges in the economy, we're now taking those on. We're making sure that our foundation is strong and that we're not deferring issues that need to be addressed."

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February 10, 2013

Government Inc. part 2: Lack of contract oversight equals lost dollars

In the last two years, Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater has agreed to let the state lose $48 million.

That's the amount of taxpayer money Atwater spent to settle dozens of bad contracts and grants that he said could have been avoided had the state done a better job cutting the deals.

"We could have built two elementary schools with that money,'' said Atwater, a former Senate president whose office writes the checks.

In each case, the state concluded it was not going to get what it paid for, Atwater said. "So we said, 'This is hogwash and you know it.'" Rather than taking the company to court, the state agreed to settle the contract at a loss.

With $50 billion of the state's $70 billion spent on vendors this year, the state of Florida is one of the largest buyers of goods and services in the Southeast, but its contract management is haphazard and inconsistent.

Now, Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott and his secretary of the Department of Management Services, Craig Nichols, are inching toward some improvements that will change the system.

Atwater is asking the Legislature for "pre-audit" authority to review contracts before they are completed to make sure the state is getting its money's worth.

Nichols has published a guidebook for contract negotiators, including a set of uniform standards. His agency has increased the number of agencies using the state's online purchasing program, MyFloridaMarketPlace, to get better discounts, and DMS is working to streamline the state's patchwork of contract procedures. Story here.

Government Inc.: Cashing in on contracts grows faster than the oversight

Even for Tallahassee standards, the scene was notable: lobbyist Brian Ballard dining with a nursing home executive, Gov. Rick Scott and a top aide at a pricey restaurant just blocks from the Capitol.

That Ballard’s clout could command a private dinner with the governor for a client speaks to the influential lobbyist’s fundraising finesse.

But equally important, and less celebrated, is Ballard’s talent for helping his clients land lucrative state contracts: $938 million this year alone, according to a Herald/Times analysis of contracts in the $70 billion state budget.

“Is that all?’’ joked Ballard, who said he had never added it up. “A big part of my business is protecting contracts, and outsourcing. Outsourcing saves [the state] money.”

Ballard is not alone. The lobbying offices that line the moss-covered streets of Tallahassee have grown exponentially larger in the past two decades as governors and legislators have steered a greater share of the state’s budget to outside vendors.

No one is keeping track of the total, but Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater last year estimated the total contract expenditure for Florida’s 2011-12 budget cycle at $50.4 billon — 72 percent of the budget. The bulk of it, nearly $42 billion, was for healthcare contracts and service sector grants that often are never competitively bid. Read more here.

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February 05, 2013

Watchdog group: Florida government engaged in corporate welfare

A government watchdog group and Americans for Prosperity blasted Florida’s government for the hundreds of millions of dollars it gives to corporations, stating the state’s jobs agency is engaged in “pay-to-play” and “corporate welfare.”

A new report by Integrity Florida and Koch-brother funded Americans for Prosperity highlights several problems with the state’s economic incentives program, which uses tax deals to bring companies to Florida.

“We’re concerned about the appearance of pay-to-play ,” said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida.

Among the report’s findings:

- Enterprise Florida has failed to meet its job creation objectives, with companies creating only 103,544 jobs after receiving tax breaks, less than the 200,000 envisioned by the Legislature in 1992 when EFI was created.

- Enterprise Florida has failed to get 50 percent funding from the private sector, instead relying on 85-percent taxpayer funding to support the public-private partnership

- Enterprise Florida has “the appearance of pay-to-play,” since it receives an average of $50,000 from some of its corporate board members. Those board members also get private contracts to do work on EFI’s behalf as well as tax break deals processed by EFI.

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December 15, 2012

Governor to keep $5 million Transparency 2.0 on the shelf and seek bids

A budget tracking web site paid for by Florida taxpayers but never made public will remain on the shelf as Gov. Rick Scott announced Friday that he will seek bids to create a public budget watchdog site and the vendors of the existing system can get in line with everyone else.

“We have decided to begin a competitive procurement process to contract with a company that best demonstrates their ability to publish web-based, user-friendly budget data at the lowest cost to taxpayers,’’ said Melissa Sellers, communications director for the governor.

The Florida Senate paid $5 million to Spider Data Services to develop Transparency 2.0 for use by the Senate and its staff to monitor the budget, state contracts and personnel services. Although the system was ready to launch in November 2011, it was never unveiled.

A Herald/Times review of Transparency 2.0 shows that, unlike other transparency web sites maintained by the legislature, the governor’s office or the chief financial officer, Transparency 2.0 allows for comprehensive and easy data searching for every line item in the budget. The system supplies planning and budget documents, and audit reports as well as contract information and links to personnel expenses.

It also shows which contracts were inserted into the budget by legislative leadership, offers a comprehensive look at billions of dollars in outside contracts and allows for the public to track budget data that today is controlled by agency and legislative staff.

The governor’s office has not ruled out the possibility that Transparency 2.0 may be the platform for the governor’s web site because Spider Data Services will be allowed to compete with other bidders, Sellers said. The bid process will be open to the public “while also ensuring we save as much taxpayer money as possible” and will begin in the new year, she said. There is no date for its scheduled completion. Story here.

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December 11, 2012

State economists: property tax collections will rise a modest fraction of a percent

It’s been at least five years since Florida’s housing market collapsed under the weight of foreclosures, and the disaster is far from over, according to state economists and budget advisors.

During a Tuesday revenue forecast conference for next year’s budget, Florida’s chief economist Amy Baker said it won’t be until at least 2017 that the hangover from the foreclosure crisis should wear off.

That means flat to steady growth in collections of property taxes in Florida's 67 counties. Economists now peg next year’s growth at less than 1 percent, about 0.83 percent. While better than last year’s 0.88 percent decrease in property taxes, it’s still pretty much a wash. It’s not expected to get much better in subsequent years, where the property taxes should climb about 3 percent each year until 2017.

“We have growth, but it’s more steady because of the foreclosures that will be hitting the marketplace,” Baker said after meeting with representatives from the House, Senate and Gov.Rick Scott’s office, including his policy chief Holger Ciupalo. These meetings are held now to establish a consensus in projecting revenues and costs and are crucial in serving as the underpinnings for the proposed budgets that will be released early next year by Scott and the Legislature.

Statewide, schools have the most to lose or gain from the projections on property taxes, which are used to estimate the Required Local Effort millage rate. This is the rate school districts levy so they can collect state revenue from sales taxes and other sources. 

-- Mike Van Sickler

December 07, 2012

Watchdog groups raise the heat as Gaetz increases distance from transparency program

Open government advocates increased the heat on state officials to unleash access to a budget transparency web site Friday as the Senate president continued to distance himself from the site under his control. 

Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, announced the he was asking Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, to develop legislation to create a “user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, web-based transparency tool”  for the state budget that could include or replace the system developed by Spider Data Systems.

The state has already spent at least $4.5 million on the Spider Data budget transparency program, called Transparency 2.0, under a contract signed by former Senate President Mike Haridopolos but kept under wraps. The sole-source contract allowed for the company to use its patented technology to merge state budget, contract, personnel and accounting data into a single portal to allow legislators and staff to track how government money is spent.  Download Spider

But the powerful search functions of the web site also weaken the ability of legislative leaders and budget staffers to control the flow of information in Tallahassee and the program has never been rolled out formally for lawmakers to use. 

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Gov. Rick Scott delays implementation of early learning funding formula

Responding to concerns expressed by the state's early learning coalitions, Gov. Rick Scott said today that he would not move forward with changing how it allocates tax dollars to these agencies next year.

The Florida Association of Early Learning Coalition took its concerns about the funding formula public this week, saying the state came up with a new way to allocate school readiness dollars to the 31 regional coalitions without their input, the News Service of Florida reported. 

From the News Service's report:

In late June, just before the new budget year began, the coalitions were notified of changes in their funding. One of the biggest losers was the Early Learning Coalition of Miami-Dade and Monroe Counties, which lost $3.7 million, effective five days later – leaving 11,000 children waiting for services.

The Early Learning Coalition of the Big Bend lost nearly $700,000, or 4.5 percent of its budget, also with less than a week to prepare. Executive director Lauren Faison saved the children's places but had to cut staff support for the providers. 

...Some areas, like Broward and Southwest Florida, got more money under the new formula, not less. But the state is planning to phase in five more years' worth of cuts – and in Miami-Dade and Monroe counties, that's another $22.3 million lost.

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