Improve contracting process in Florida state spending

February 12, 2013 

Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater is championing a commendable proposal to help the Legislature quit wasting taxpayer money on state contracts for goods and services that turn sour. Over the past two years, the state has lost $48 million while walking away from bad contracts and grants instead of taking vendors to court.

Pure and simple waste, the kind that angers taxpayers -- as it well should. Atwater outlined his plan in Sunday's Opinion page. As a former president of the Florida Senate, he has a strong insider's view and expertise on this issue.

He only seeks legislative authority to review contracts before they are signed, sealed and delivered -- to ensure the state is making a sound investment. Why isn't this kind of due diligence being performed now? The state's defective contracting process lacks statewide standards. Combined with lax oversight, the system is ripe for abuse and waste.

Out of Florida's $70 billion annual budget this year, some $50 billion will be spent on vendor contracts. As the state continues to outsource services -- such as privatizing prisons -- the potential for greater losses grows.

Atwater, Gov. Rick Scott and Craig Nichols, the governor's secretary of management services, are all working on reforms to improve the contracting process -- not only to avoid bad contracts but to save the state money by pushing agencies to negotiate or locate bigger discounts.

In advocating safeguards on taxpayer money, Atwater intends to boost "the value, integrity, transparency, accountability and public confidence in the state's contracting policies ..." Lawmakers cannot possibly oppose that, right?

Lobbyists and special interests, however, have a great deal to lose -- especially with contracts that automatically renew annually with scant review and deals with rising costs but little accountability.

Vendors range from health service providers and computer companies to vehicle suppliers and educational tutors. Their interests are advanced and protected by an astonishing number of lobbyists. The Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reports there are about 4,900 people registered to lobby the governor, Cabinet and state agencies -- far more than the 3,200 registered to court the state's 160 legislators.

Atwater revealed a startling statistic about his office's audits of contracts and agreements during the last fiscal year. Of the 600 audits, 276 failed to contain "common-sense contracting standards."

More appalling, though, is his conclusion on this particular point: "Considering this sampling, we are faced with the potential that nearly $23 billion could be at risk due to poorly written or badly managed contracts," he wrote.

"Wasted dollars will not be tolerated; all state contracts should reflect the highest ethical and fiscal standards--clear, consistent and measurable."

Transparency and accountability are critical at all levels of government, more so with state spending of billions and billions of tax dollars. The Legislature should grant Atwater the "pre-audit" authority he seeks, adopt statewide contracting standards and streamline the entire process while implementing greater transparency at all levels so the public can review spending. The time for reform is past due.

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