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Florida lawmakers reverse course on transparency, seek exemptions

UPDATE: Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater's efforts to put bring all state contracts into the open on a state-run transparency web site was hit with a major setback as House leaders used the budget conference process to insert broad exemptions into the transparency effort.

Rather than post all contract data on a secure statewide website for the public to view, the House General Government Appropriations Committee wants to exempt all the Cabinet agencies and the judicial branch from the review. That would include all contracts handled by the Department of Financial Services, the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, the Attorney General and the judicial branch, including state attorneys. Only the governor's agencies would be included in the disclosure. 

In addition, if bills moving through the Legislature this session are passed, all Medicaid managed care agreements would be shifted from the governor's Agency for Health Care Administration to the Department of Financial Services and those high-profile contracts would not be required to be posted on the public website.

"We kind of see this as a first step,'' said Rep. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, chairman of the House Government Operations and Appropriations Subcommitee. "We wanted to begin the process of posting contracts online. We thought that by exempting the Cabinet agencies for the time being is the best approach. The thought is to extend it later."

Sen. Alan Hays, chairman of the Senate General Government Committee, presented the Senate's offer, which rejected the House exemptions. Instead, the Senate wants the House to adopt its proposal that would require the governor that maintain a single website to host the state's budget transparency process while the CFO's web site would have to include all state agencies, including the judicial branch. 

Florida's $72 billion budget is comprised of $50 billion in outsourced contracts and grants to private and not-for-profit companies. Atwater has urged lawmakers to require state agencies to post their contracdts online to allow the public to scrutinize them. The more scrutiny, the less likely contracts will be extended without cause, or costs approved without performance measures, Atwater argues.

The House and Senate have been advancing Atwater's idea through HB 5401 and SB 1764, which do not include the exemptions. Atwater spokeswoman Anna Alexopoulos said that CFO was disappointed that any agency would be exempted from posting its contracts on the website,  known as the Florida Accountability Contract Tracking System. "Our department has already put our contract information online,'' she said.

Hays said that because the two chambers appear to be so divided over the issue, it is likely to be decided by House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz.