TALLAHASSEE – There's an obvious reason why Florida politicos spend so much time talking about the cleansing effect of transparency without ever hopping in the tub. Whether in war, business or politics, informational advantages are powerful forces that can determine outcomes – and protect the status quo.
Thus, for nearly two decades, Florida's jobs agencies overseeing billions of dollars in economic incentives given to companies never disclosed whether the dollars were producing the promised jobs.
After pressure mounted last year to do so, it became apparent that Gov. Rick Scott's new Department of Economic Opportunity – because of decisions dating back to previous administrations – couldn't answer the question. And despite a directive from lawmakers last year, DEO has dragged its feet in putting the incentive data on a Web site.
Next spring, Senate Transportation and Economic Development budget chairman Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and others are promising to start from "ground zero" in re-examining whether the tax breaks and benefits work.
"Asking for money and a lot of the same things year after year after year is an exercise I don't think is going anywhere," Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Margate, told DEO officials this week. "I don't think these tax incentives work."
At the same time, though, the Legislature and governor have been jostling over their informational edge regarding the state's budget.
In 2011, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, ordered a project called Transparency 2.0 to develop new software to allow the public to see behind the budget curtain.
The software takes individuals behind the "line-items" of the budget to easily review contracts with vendors, the public-employee payroll and other information that today is, in a practical sense, available only to lawmakers, their staff and other insiders.
Here's the locked doorway: http://senatetransparency.spiderdataservices.com/
But because the $5.5 million contract itself was an insider, no-bid contract initiated between Haridopolos' former chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, and Spider Data Services, Scott's office (which later employed MacNamara) has refused to take it over as planned.
The site could be headed to the database graveyard at the end of the year, when the Senate contract expires. And while government watchdog groups and Democrats have stepped up pressure to keep the database alive, new Senate President Don Gaetz responded with a withering three-page memo on Friday.
Gaetz, R-Niceville, said that renewing the contract would be costly – and allow the company to maintain ownership of the site, even though it draws from publicly available data.
"After investing $5 million taxpayer dollars in this product, the Senate does not own it," Gaetz wrote in the memo."Moreover, the Senate has no right to use it beyond December 31, 2012, unless the vendor is paid an additional $1 million per year."
Instead, he directed Ring and other lawmakers to look into creating their own version of the site. Though in some respects, that's like telling the fox to draw up plans for a new hen house.
The Florida Legislature has always kept the inner workings of its $70-billion spending plan close to the vest. That allows insiders – notably, legislators -- to maintain their informational advantages over would-be contractors, lobbyists and the public.
Gaetz and new House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, have both said that, as presiding officers, they have only a "thimble of power." It's no accident they may be saving it for other priorities.
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