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Legislative leaders are ready to shelve $5 million budget-transparency program

Florida’s new legislative leadership team and the 44 new legislators who took the oath of office in Tallahassee last Tuesday pledged to keep close tabs on the state budget and weed out waste in government contracts.

"Let’s make sure we’re getting value received and the best price," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shortly after being sworn in as the Senate’s new president.

But if history is a guide, few will master the task because access to budget information across numerous agency platforms is notoriously complicated and difficult to access.

That could change if a software program quietly developed by a former House budget staffer, licensed by the state Senate under former Senate president Mike Haridopolos, and financed with $5 million of taxpayer dollars, is launched instead of allowed to expire at the end of the 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.  Download Spider contract.

“It sounds like an orphan nobody wants,’’ Gaetz told the Herald/Times. He and three other senators were given a 40-minute demonstration of a beta tested version of Transparency 2.0 in September 2011, before all the Florida data was loaded into the system. Gaetz concluded: “the price was extraordinary and the product was underwhelming.”

Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida, a consumer watchdog organization, believes state officials owe it to the public to launch the web-based program.

“If $5 million of taxpayer money has been invested in a budget-tracking website, then it should see the light of day,’’ said Krassner, who has not seen the program in operation. “Budget tracking tools like this should be used by policy makers to eliminate wasteful spending. Disclosure is the key to accountability.”

Turf battles and distrust over the way Spider Data’s no-bid contract was handled by Steve MacNamara, the former chief of staff to Scott and Haridopolos, have muddied its acceptance by current legislative leaders.

MacNamara is close friends with Spider Data’s lobbyist, Jim Eaton, who has also established a partnership with one of the program’s developers, Anna Mattson, to promote a similar product for local governments.

Despite Haridopolos’ early enthusiasm for the program, (in 2010 he appeared on Mike Huckabee’s show on Fox News touting it), he and Senate budget leaders kept the program under wraps during his term. A status report on the project submitted in August says the program was ready to use for the 2012 legislative budget meetings. The Senate assigned staff to be part of a beta testing team but failed to follow through on a requirement of the contract: that it provide the developers with access to the House’s budget and planning documents.  Download Senate Transparency 2.0_Status Report

Gaetz said the Senate transferred management of the program to the governor this summer, according to conforming language MacNamara helped secure in the 2012-13 budget, along with another $2.5 million for transparency programming.

But after MacNamara’s resignation from the governor’s office in June — after a series of reports in the Herald/Times that showed he steered contracts to friends — the governor’s office is not yet willing to take ownership.

“We are in the earliest stages of due diligence,’’ said Adam Hollingsworth, Scott’s chief of staff who replaced MacNamara. Hollingsworth is skeptical of the Spider Data program, although he hadn’t seen it until a reporter raised questions about it. He has asked the governor’s budget director to study the system, determine how it functions and assess the credibility of the data.

“One of the many items we will look at is the method of procurement and if it allows it to be transferred in its current form,” Hollingsworth said.

Mattson, a former legislative budget staffer, formed Spider Data Services and developed the software with Sherri Taylor, an information technology and computer systems expert. They are still owed $500,000 for developing the program.

“We recognize that the incoming legislative leaders have the right to set their own priorities, and we look forward to an opportunity to demonstrate the full capabilities of this powerful budget analysis system,” Mattson said in a statement.

Their contract with the Senate requires them to collect and post the information monthly to the Transparency 2.0 database. Spider Data Services has hired a vendor to host the servers, operating systems and other infrastructure needed to support the high speed network, according to an August status report filed with the Senate.

The Senate contract also required that Spider Data to train legislative staff to operate the program. Absent any direction from Senate leadership on how to progress with this requirement, Mattson and Taylor scheduled three webinars for Senate staff in late October so they would comply with the contract requirements.

Staff members of the House, Senate and governor’s office who spoke with the Herald/Times on background each said they had not seen the system but were convinced it duplicates the budgetary functions of the web site created by the Legislature and the contract search functions of the web site created by Atwater.

With Gaetz’s approval, the Herald/Times requested access to the system to compare its operation with the existing online transparency programs operated by the Legislature and Atwater.

The program works by taking data from the state’s legacy systems — the Legislative Appropriations System Planning and Budgeting Subsystem (LAS/PBS), the Florida Accounting Information Resource (FLAIR), the People First personnel system and the State Contracts Management System (SCMS). It has not been given access to the contracts in the MyFloridaMarketplace System.

The Herald compared the search functions of Atwater’s FACTs system and with the state’s web site and found that the information provided by the Spider Data programs was more comprehensive and complete and searches were more productive. Detail about the state’s base budget can be tracked by salaries and benefits; contracts can be searched based on their relationship with planning documents and monitoring reports, and details about contracts are provided in context.

For example, a search of an exclusive contract Haridopolos inserted into the budget this year on behalf of Evidence Based Associates, a Washington-based probation program, to divert at-risk youth into community programs turned up links to the contract, budgetary planning documents, a report on the program by the Office of Program and Policy Analysis and related spending by the state’s Juvenile Probation Program.

A sort by vendor found that EBA has been paid $2.3 million in this budget year for its contracts. A link to the accounting details showed the amount of each of the checks paid to the company. A link to its contracts detailed two contracts held by EBA, one valued at $19.8 million over six years and another valued at $5.3 million over five years. The contract detail also answers a series of questions such as: Was this contract competitively procured? No. Has a business case or cost benefit analysis been completed since the award of the contract? No. Does the contract contain performance metrics? Yes.

By contrast, the site about EBA provided a list of the five payments totaling $2.3 million made to the program this budget year but offer no other cross references or details of the contract. A search of Atwater’s web site found no links to planning documents or OPPAGA reports but did provide contract details and answers to the contract questions.

Absent from the program was all House budget data and work papers that would make that chamber’s input searchable.

"This administration has not been approached by Spider Data to be a part of their contract,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford in a statement. “Any discussions with Spider Data occurred under previous administrations.” As speaker of the House, he said, he will “look for ways the House can be more transparent to the public."