February 10, 2013

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.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/02/09/v-fullstory/3226029/cashing-in-on-state-contracts.html#storylink=cpy

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.

Read more here: http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/12/14/3142680/gov-scott-calls-for-bids-to-build.html#storylink=cpy

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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December 05, 2012

Senate: transparency contract is under review but public access is not an option

Senate President Don Gaetz asked his legal counsel, George Levesque, to review the Senate's contract with the company that developed the software program that is the foundation for the Senate's budget transparency program, Transparency 2.0.

As the Herald/Times reported last month, the Senate tested the program and it was available for senators to use during the 2012 budget cycle but was kept on hold. A new report by the watchdog groups Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation has concluded that the web site, developed by Spider Data systems and paid $4.5 million by the Senate, "would save millions of dollars" if legislators, and the public, were given access to it.

The contract with the company expires this month, however, and the Senate has no plan to take the program public nor to make it available for Senate staff to use.

Gaetz spokeswoman Katie Betta said in a statement late Wednesday that the Senate president is "planning to meet with the vendor to review the product and their proposal for a contract extension" and will determine whether the Senate will make the program available to senators and staff then. 

Here's Betta's full statement:

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Watchdog groups say stalled transparency program would save millions

 On the same day Senate leaders announced they would conduct an intensive review of the state budget, two government watchdog groups said a budget transparency program — put on hold by the Senate — could "save Florida millions of dollars” and revolutionize budget accountability.

The web site, Transparency 2.0, was developed and licensed by the Senate for $4.5 million. But it is scheduled to be shelved at the end of the month as the Senate and the governor’s office feud over which has responsibility for maintaining it and paying the $1 million annual license fee.

“Transparency 2.0 has the ability to help all Floridians and policy makers oversee their state government – and hold it accountable – with a businesslike, searchable and measurable web site,’’ wrote Integrity Florida, a non-profit, non-partisan organization, and the First Amendment Foundation, in a report released Wednesday.

The joint report was requested by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and the office of Gov. Rick Scott after the Herald/Times reported that the program provides a searchable way to track spending on government contracts, salaries and budgets. It was funded by the Senate, but has been kept on hold for the past year. Story here.

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October 24, 2012

Little attention for $20 million business tax cut amendment

Tucked near the end of a lengthy ballot that features contentious issues like abortion and the Supreme Court is a little-discussed business tax cut amendment hoping to make it into the state Constitution.

Amendment 10 would provide an additional $25,000 tax exemption for small businesses that have less than $50,000 worth of furniture, computers and other so-called “tangible property.”

The amendment has received little attention in recent months because there is little organized opposition and business groups have focused their attention elsewhere. It would primarily affect smaller businesses and provide about $20 million in savings on a tax that generates $1.7 billion annually.

“I think it’s a really positive tax policy for our small businesses in Florida,” said David Hart, vice president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which advocated this year for the constitutional change.

The amendment, one of 11 that lawmakers have placed on Florida’s lengthy 2012 ballot, could impact up to 40,000 small businesses next year if it gains the necessary 60 percent of the vote. A clause in the language would allow local governments to expand the savings to some larger businesses, or eliminate the tangible property tax altogether.

Read more here


October 02, 2012

State Board of Education wants $442 million for technology upgrades

The Florida Board of Education is putting finishing touches on the budget request that it will send to Gov. Rick Scott, and at the center of its plan for the upcoming fiscal year is a $442 million technology initiative.

That money would be used to increase the availability of wireless internet ($239 million), increase internet bandwith ($151 million) and purchase new technology or tools ($52 million).

The State Board of Education is scheduled to discuss the budget proposal during its meeting on Tuesday. In total, $891 million in new funding is being requested for 2013-2014.

Of that amount, $198 million reflects growth in enrollment among the state's prekindergarten, K-12 schools and state colleges. The total Department of Education budget request is $15.2 billion. The 2012-2013 budget is $14.6 billion.

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