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Transparency Isn’t Cheap

The price of transparency may be too costly in the current state of Florida’s economy, but a joint panel on Monday said lawmakers should proceed and hope that funds are available later.

Facing a March 1 deadline, the Joint Legislative Auditing Committee unanimously approved a slate of recommendations that if adopted would provide the average Florida citizen with a more meaningful glimpse at how schools, state and local government spend their money.

But the price took more than a few panelists by surprise. Fully implementing the Transparency Florida program could cost as much as $80 million and take four years to complete, a figure some panelists said made such information too expensive to justify.

Lawmakers last session approved Transparency Florida, a web-based initiative to provide citizens with a plethora of information on government finances including expenditures, revenues, travel expenses, bonding information, salaries and links to other web sites. The joint panel was charged coming forward with a series of recommendations.

Despite serious concerns over costs and the reliability of estimates, the panel voted to approve a slate of recommendations that set in motion a three-phased approach to providing such detailed information, with the bulk of the money not needed until the final phase still years away.

“We should recommend going forward with the first and second phases,” said Sen. Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville. “We can get that (third phase) at a later date. We have some recommendations here that we ought to accept.”

The recommendations call for ratcheting up efforts to provide more detailed information. Staff recommended starting with the public schools, which have the most comparable data. The first two phases require only minimum capital investment.

That education price tag, however, would still hover above $9 million, the bulk of which would be used for labor costs associated with compiling that amount of data. Given an expected $3 billion budget gap this year, making government more transparent may not be in the cards.

“This is probably not the time to spend that money,” said Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg.

Fueled last session by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, lawmakers approved SB 1796 that called for greater accountability. Despite the cost, some panelists said its too early to mothball the concept, even if the money isn’t there now.

“I guess I’m not prepared to totally write this off and say let’s go on to the next issue,” said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando.

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