December 20, 2012

Legislature wants budget transparency but exempts itself from the rules

Florida's lawmakers say they want to make the state's $70 billion budget process more transparent but when it comes to handling contracts and disclosing state salaries, neither Senate President Don Gaetz nor House Speaker Will Weatherford is quite ready to require the legislature be held to the same standards that it imposes on state agencies.

State law imposes strict rules for no-bid and sole source contracts in state government, requiring any contract over $250,000 be put out to bid and any sole source vendor to meet strict requirements. But the legislature has exempted itself from those rules.

There are nearly 33,400 contracts listed on the Chief Financial Officer's website with data on who gets paid for them and how much each vendor collects from taxpayers. The legislature does not list any of its contracts on the public site.

Anyone working for state government in an agency or state university has his salary posted for all to see on Gov. Rick Scott's website. But there is no salary information for the legislature and its 1,530 employees.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who each became presiding officers in November, make it available only upon request. This doesn't please Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, himself a former Republican Senate president from North Palm Beach.

"I don't think the legislature should be exempting itself from the laws it is placing on other agencies,'' Atwater said last week. Story here.

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 13, 2012

Mel Martinez on higher taxes: “Republicans are going to have to swallow the pill."

Florida’s former senator and a one-time head of the national Republican Party, Mel Martinez, said Thursday that members of his own party need to get ready to go along with higher taxes.

“Republicans are going to have to swallow the pill they don’t want to swallow,” Martinez said on a conference call with reporters about the effects of the so-called “fiscal cliff” debt talks in Washington.

But, Martinez said, Democrats also need to “confront the most-ardent of their supporters” as well. They need to help tackle the “elephant in the room:” entitlement programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

If there’s no debt deal between Republicans and Democrats in Washington, Martinez warned, tax increases will rise on everyone, federal programs will be cut, recession could ensue and, according to a defense-industry study, Florida could lose 80,000 jobs.

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December 05, 2012

Negron wants 'intensive' budget review in Senate

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, on Wednesday promised an "intensive" review of state spending, including state contracts and recurring local projects that are renewed each year with little or no public scrutiny. He also backs the idea of a separate review of all local spending that Gov. Rick Scott will propose in his budget.

"We really want to enhance our review of the base budget," said Negron, who currently ranks as the Legislature's most seasoned budget-watcher (he has chaired all human services spending in the Senate and previously ran the full House Appropriations Committee.

Negron urged fellow senators to take a much closer look at state contracts with private providers, and to hold state agencies accountable for cases in which there are "huge variations" in the costs the state is paying for similar services in different areas of the state."Sometimes there are divergences that can't be explained," Negron said.

He credited Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater for encouraging the review of contracts, and said he had an open mind and no preconceived notions about contracting practices.

Negron gave the overview in the form of a request to the senators who chair individual budget subcommittees, who listened closely but offered no public reaction at a brief meeting. The intensive review will all be in public, Negron promised: "It will all be done in the sunshine."

-- Steve Bousquet

November 19, 2012

Unions' lawsuit targets prison medical privatization

State employee labor unions were back in a Tallahassee courtroom Monday, trying to block Gov. Rick Scott's administration from outsourcing all health care for  inmates in the nation's third-largest prison system. Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper posed questions to both sides for nearly two hours and promised a quick ruling.

"There's a lot on the line here," Cooper said.

The Department of Corrections has a signed contract with Corizon Healthcare to take over health care operations in central and north Florida prisons by mid-January. The state is still negotiating with Wexford Health Sources, which won the right to operate prisons in South Florida. Both vendors have said the overwhelming majority of their employees will be state workers displaced by the privatization.

But a negative court decision would be bad news for the state. Prison health care unions are challenging the state's authority to outsource inmate health care without a specific appropriation from the Legislature in the current budget. The unions say it's improper for the prison system to move forward with the project based only on approval from the Legislative Budget Commission (LBC) in September.

The judge also questioned whether that's lawful. "These are the questions I'm raising," Cooper said.

The unions argue in court papers that the only specific appropriation to privatize prison health care operations in the current budget is for $41.4 million in the South Florida region only, and that it's contrary to state law and the Florida Constitution for the LBC to go beyond that. 

In court, Jonathan Sanford, an assistant general counsel at the prison system, said the LBC simply allowed an accounting transfer, as requested by the governor's office, to let the privatization proceed. "I think that's standard procedure," Sanford said. 

But neither side's lawyers, nor Corizon attorney William Williams, sounded very authoritative in explaining how the legislative budget process worked in this case. "It's a fairly arcane process," Williams told the judge, who asked all sides to file legal memoranda by Nov. 28.

The unions left the courtroom hopeful they have a chance to thwart the project from moving forward after seeing the judge hone in on the LBC's power. "I feel good about the issue, and the judge did recognize that it was an issue," said Tom Brooks, attorney for the employee unions.  

-- Steve Bousquet

October 01, 2012

Opposition to Amendment 3's spending caps rallies at state Capitol

Florida religious leaders, labor unions and senior citizens marched to the state Capitol on Monday to protest a proposed constitutional amendment they say will lead to massive cuts to education and crucial social services.

Calling the revenue-capping Amendment 3 a “wolf in sheep’s clothing,” the group of about 50 said the proposal would slash education funding and pit seniors against the poor in a scramble for limited state dollars.

“This will not be good for the great citizens of the state of Florida,” said Rev. Richard Dunn, a Miami pastor and former city commissioner. “It will not be good for our children, it will not be good for our seniors and it will not be good for the middle class people.”

Amendment 3 proposes to change the way state revenue caps are set—using a formula based on population size and inflation, rather than personal income growth. Once state revenue from taxes and other sources exceeds the new caps, excess money would be used to shore up a budget stabilization “rainy day” fund.

Proponents of Amendment 3—which include business groups—say it will force state lawmakers to spend more wisely and avoid overspending during times of economic growth.

"The less government takes, the more Floridians will keep," said Edie Ousley, a spokesperson for the Florida Chamber of Commerce. "Voting yes on Amendment 3 will send a message to our state leaders that the size of Florida’s government shouldn’t grow faster than the taxpayers capacity to pay for it.”

Outgoing Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, was a major backer of the “smart cap” amendment, saying it would lead to “less, government, less taxes and more freedom.”

After the proposal was approved by the Senate last year, Haridopolos released a video calling it “a common sense idea that finally makes sure that government spending never grows faster than family income, meaning when the economy recovers we will not overspend.”

But opponents—who have begun to mobilize in religious groups, labor unions and senior communities—predict a much grimmer scenario.

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September 29, 2012

Can Florida's Medicaid experiment be the model for the nation?

Quietly, over the past six years, an experiment in providing healthcare for the poor has been playing out in Broward and four other counties around the state. Its basic goal is to relieve the financial pressures of Medicaid on Florida’s taxpayers by turning over poor and disabled patients to private companies, a move lawmakers believe will cut costs.

Conservatives love the Medicaid reform program, pointing to an in-depth University of Florida study indicating that the experiment has lowered costs while not raising consumer complaints. The Legislature has already approved a slightly modified model of the reform to go statewide. At least one national think tank believes it should be a model for the entire country.

Liberals decry the effort as a way to build corporate profits at the expense of the poor. Howard Mallinger, a Sunrise retiree, thinks they’re right. He has two adult sons with mental health problems who are in a Medicaid health maintenance organization. The HMO frequently won’t provide their medications, or is slow to approve them, causing their health issues to spiral out of control, Mallinger says.

One son has been involuntarily committed under Florida’s Baker Act 44 times in the past five years, he says. That often means expensive three-day hospital confinements. “The joke is on the taxpayer,” Mallinger says.

More from John Dorschner here.

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September 20, 2012

Census report: Number of Floridians in poverty rose as income gap widens

Florida residents are among the poorest in the nation as median income in the state dropped 2.9 percent in 2011 and the state had some of the broadest gaps in income equality, according to 2011 U.S. Census Bureau data from the American Community Survey released on Thursday.

One in six Floridians lived in poverty last year, and the median income dipped from $45,609 in 2010 to $44,299 in 2011, according to the survey. The national median income is $50,502 and one in five Americans live in poverty.  

The survey also found that the income gap in Florida widened by 3.6 percent in 2011, a reflection of the state’s stagnant unemployment and slow jobs market. The income disparities in the state also remain among the highest in the nation, although they are on par with other states in the Southeast.

Seventeen percent of Florida’s population – 3.1 million people -- lived in poverty in 2011, up from 16.5 percent in 2010 and above the 15.9 percent national average. According to the survey, 48.5 million people had income below the poverty rate in the U.S., 2.2 million more than the year before.

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July 26, 2012

Florida prison vendor agrees to hefty fine in Pa. case

The company awaiting final approval from Gov. Rick Scott's administration to privatize health care services for most Florida prison inmates has agreed to pay a $1.85 million fine in Philadelphia for skirting minority contracting requirements. The vendor, Prison Health Services, now known as Corizon Health, is accused of falsifying official documents and federal prosecutors are looking for evidence of mail and wire fraud.  

News accounts in Philadelphia newspapers report that the city's inspector general, Amy Kurland, as describing the arrangement as a classic "pass-through" in which health care for city jail inmates was subcontracted to JHK Inc,., a female-owned business in Indiana that handled pharmaceutical supplies. The company said it had permission from prison employees for the arrangement.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter called the city's settlement with the company"a significant moment that sends a very, very strong message to everyone who does business with the city," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

As the story was breaking in Philadelphia, Scott's Department of Corrections was formally asking the Legislature for approval to shift $58 million in health care funds across categories so that it can hire Corizon and a second private vendor, Wexford Health Sources, by January 2013. The request for a budget amendment is pending before the Legislative Budget Commission and appears below.

To All Legislative Members:
This Budget amendment is pending approval by the Executive Office of the Governor and requires LEGISLATIVE BUDGET COMMISSION approval. If the Commission chairman elects to agenda this amendment it will be implemented on 8/8/2012.

Budget Amendment Request #:
Requested by:
Department of Corrections
Problem Statement:
The department has requested and received proposals for the statewide privatization of comprehensive health services. In order to award the contracts, budgetary action is needed to transfer funding to the appropriate category.

Agency Request:
The department requests to transfer $57,668,391 in General Revenue to the Inmate Health Services budget entity, Inmate Health Services category from the following categories within Inmate Health Services: Salaries and Benefits  $ 37,535,005 Other Personal Services 12,875,012 Expenses                             6,697,952 OCO                                         199,229 Contracted Services              361,193 Approval of this request will enable the department to move forward with the statewide privatization of comprehensive health care services based on a January 1 implementation date.

EOG Recommendation:
Recommend approval for the transfer of $57,668,391 in General Revenue in the Department of Corrections between various categories within the Inmate Health Services program. The transfer is necessary for the department to move forward with the statewide privatization of comprehensive health services with an anticipated January 1, 2013, implementation date.

-- Steve Bousquet

June 27, 2012

Atwater hopes to reform flawed contracting process by exposing it to sunlight

Florida will spend $47 billion this year hiring outsiders to provide goods and services for the state but hundreds of the contractors will not be required to show they provided services they agreed to and their documentation will be rife with errors.

Those are the conclusions of Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater after a sample audit of the 24,000 state contracts at 33 different agencies found that 35 percent were flawed.

At stake, he said: "Hundreds of millions of dollars" of the state's $70 billion budget, 67 percent of which is outsourced. 

On Wednesday, Atwater unveiled a new web site that details most of the state's contracts so the public can determine if they are being held accountable for the services they are offering. The goal, he said, is to put the heat on the flawed contracting system by turning the public into watchdogs and inviting more competitors to the table.

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