Upon taking the oath of his office in November, new Florida Senate President Don Gaetz pledged to lead a new era of cooperation in the Legislature -- a refreshing tone of bipartisanship quite distant from the past few years. The Niceville Republican also appears friendly to government transparency, another dramatic turn.
But he's balking at a new tool that would put total sunshine on state spending. He issued a memo to his fellow senators last week outlining his concerns about a budget transparency website that could unlock the stealthy spending process to the public. He put the project on hold.
The state already spent $4.5 million on a contract with Spider Data Systems to develop the program, called Transparency 2.0, but that deal expires at the end of the year unless renewed with an annual $1 million licensing fee.
The website remains off limits to the public. Even lawmakers and staff do not have access.
But Gaetz committed to some sort of "user-friendly, accurate, cost-effective, web-based transparency tool" in his memo.
Since one already exists at great expense to taxpayers, why wait? Gaetz is rightfully hesitant over the annual fee, but at the very least a one-year contract would allow time to consider other software options.
Two government watchdog organizations -- the First Amendment Foundation and Integrity Florida -- both previewed Transparency 2.0 with enthusiastic reviews in a report issued last week. The two compared Transparency 2.0 with a pair of operational state transparency websites, rating the new one far superior. Spider Data's patented technology merges state budget, accounting, contract and personnel information into one portal -- links that only a select few in Tallahassee could access until now.
That report stated: "Transparency 2.0 has the ability to help all Floridians and policymakers oversee their state government -- and hold it accountable -- with a businesslike, searchable and measurable website.''
From First Amendment Foundation Executive Director Barbara Petersen: "Transparency 2.0 gives you not just the information but the context for the information -- which makes it more meaningful. I am so impressed by it that I think it would be a crime if the governor and the Legislature don't go forward with it."
From Integrity Florida Director Dan Krassner: "What we saw was a website that, if made public, would give the citizens of Florida, and our state policy makers, the opportunity to see all the spending, find waste and save millions of dollars for Florida taxpayers. Why not allow the public to identify cost savings?" Indeed, why not? Someone might find enough in savings to cover the annual licensing fee.
Since the project originated in the Senate under former President Mike Haridopolos, Gaetz inherited control. While he searches for "which product will provide the most value to the taxpayers of Florida," as stated in his memo, he should release the powerful Transparency 2.0 to the public.
With his strong commitment to accountability at all levels of government, Gov. Rick Scott should insist.