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News Section: State Government

State Says Surplus May Evaporate as Watchdogs Call for More Transparency

Published Friday, December 7, 2012 12:10 am

BRADENTON – Florida Senators have warned that a legal fight over lawmakers' attempts to require public-employee retirement contributions is a potential budget-buster that would possibly erase a recently announced budget surplus of $436.8 million.

In 2011, Florida passed a law that required state employees to begin contributing 3 percent of their wages toward their retirement accounts, while also reducing "cost of living adjustments" in FRS pensions. A Tallahassee circuit judge ruled against both. The case is currently pending before the state's Supreme Court.

If the current ruling stands, it would cost the state $1.6 billion next year, according to analysis by the Florida House. Such a blow would clearly wipe out the state's projected budget surplus and then some.

Credit-rating agencies have also reportedly indicated that they would like to see the state shore up its "rainy day" budget stabilization fund, currently projected to have $708.1 million by June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Some lawmakers have advocated trying to double that figure.

Meanwhile, other groups such as public universities and health care advocates are also seeking funding. Amy Baker, the Legislature's chief economist, warned Wednesday during a panel discussion with university presidents that the present surplus could "evaporate" by next June, while reminding the panel that state revenues aren't expected to recover to their pre-recession levels until late 2014.

As Senate leaders announced they would conduct an thorough review of the state budget, two government watchdog groups responded that a budget transparency program, which has been put on hold by the Senate, could save the state millions of dollars, while revolutionizing budget accountability.

Transparency 2.0, a web site developed and licensed by the Senate for $4.5 million, is scheduled to be put on the shelf at the end of the month, as the Senate and the governor’s office debate who has responsibility for maintaining the site and paying the $1 million annual license fee.

“Transparency 2.0 has the ability to help all Floridians and policy makers oversee their state government – and hold it accountable – with a businesslike, searchable and measurable web site,’’ wrote advocacy groups Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation in a joint report released this week.

The program provides a searchable database to track spending on government contracts, salaries and budgets online. It was funded by the Florida Senate, but has been on hold for about a year. The Senate transferred management of the program to Scott’s office in June, but they have refused to accept, over concerns about the $5 million no-bid contract given to the company, and the involvement of former Scott Chief of Staff Steve MacNamara, who resigned over accusations that he steered it toward a friend.

A law passed in 2011 requires the governor to create a web portal that would make the state's budget and related information transparent to the public. Legislators put $2.5 million in the governor’s 2011 budget to pay for the program.

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