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Monday, May 16, 2011

The Florida Legislature's response to honesty: Pink Slips

This and their leagalized slush funds should really alarm people. -cpg

From the Orlando Sentinel

by Aaron Deslatte

TALLAHASSEE -- While they were beefing up required measurements for teachers and state agencies, one of the least-discussed budget decisions Florida lawmakers made this spring was weakening the office that measures them.

A year after shaving one-third of the $8 million budget for the Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability, or Oppaga, Republican lawmakers went even further his spring. In the last week of session, legislative leaders eliminated all dedicated funding for the office – instead folding its budget into a discretionary account controlled by the leadership.

This happened in the same 60-day session that saw lawmakers pass a "Student Success Act" that determines teacher pay based on measurements of their performance in the classroom.

They also passed a reorganization that requires Gov. Rick Scott to produce a "business plan" for economic development that does a better job of measuring what taxpayers are getting in return for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives given to companies.

They debated on the House floor why there was not enough research into whether red-light cameras reduce traffic accidents, and why Florida's growth controls hadn't prevented urban sprawl – even though the research suggests it has, to some degree.

But when it comes to measuring their own handiwork, ruling lawmakers can't seem to get much satisfaction.

Congress and most big-state legislatures maintain independent watchdog offices such as the Government Accountability Office, designed to provide non-partisan research on whether policies and programs are achieving their intended results, staying on budget, or running off the tracks.

Oppaga's reports don't make for gripping bedtime reading.

One April study determined that a program meant to encourage developers to clean up environmentally contaminated sites had managed to rehab 629 acres – at a cost of $24.6 million – since the "brownfield" program began in 1997.

But the report also identified a large backlog of applicants. And pushed by lawmakers like Rep. Debbie Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, the Legislature boosted the amount of brownfield tax credits available to developers from $2 million annually to $5 million.

Another Oppaga report this year found the Florida Retirement System was fiscally sound, despite Scott's campaign charges that it was in danger of insolvency.

Although lawmakers made changes to the FRS this year, sponsors of requiring public employees to start contributing 3 percent of their paychecks into the system dropped the rhetoric that their motivation was to shore up the fund rather than balancing the state budget.

But Oppaga itself hasn't gotten a lot of love.

"I am not a terribly big fan of the research coming out," Senate Budget Chairman J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said after the change was agreed to in the last week of session. "To me, it's sort of milquetoast. They don't take firm positions, they take safe positions."

Last year, lawmakers tried to abolish the office, and then-Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said "there aren't a lot of fans" of Oppaga.

Last winter, the longtime director of the office resigned, and hasn't been replaced. And Scott has already signed a bill giving the Legislature's presiding officers the power to fire the next director, rather than requiring a full vote by both the House and Senate.

"It is unfortunate," said Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, "that the Legislature can't have/fund a truly independent auditing entity that can be honest without fear of political retribution. While Oppaga has done some good in-depth analysis, it became clear that due to the political climate, the response to brutal honesty was pink slips." or 850-222-5564. Follow him on Twitter @adeslatte.,0,3381267.column?track=rss&utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed:+orlandosentinel/news/columnists/deslatte+(

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