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Proposal to beef up contract oversight stalls

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A proposed constitutional measure that would give Florida's chief financial officer more power to oversee state contracts stalled Tuesday in a tie vote.

The Constitution Revision Commission's Executive Committee deadlocked twice in 3-3 votes over advancing the measure (Proposal 68), sponsored by Commissioner Tom Lee, a Republican state senator from Thonotosassa.

The proposal would give the chief financial officer, one of three Cabinet members elected statewide, a larger role in overseeing state contracts in excess of $10 million. The measure would also allow the CFO to participate in the process of estimating state revenue and other financial impacts.

Lee said despite Tuesday's votes he plans to resurrect his proposal when the full Constitution Revision Commission meets. The commission has the power to place proposed constitutional amendments directly on the November 2018 ballot.

To reach the ballot, however, Lee's measure would have to win support from 22 of the 37 commission members. It would need support from 60 percent of voters to be enacted.

“We really don't have a good healthy set of permanent controls in state government in how money is being spent,” said Lee, who plans to run for the CFO post next year. “That's not responsible.”

Lee, a former Senate president and budget chairman, said what often happens is that the Legislature appropriates contract money, and if the governor agrees, “the vendor and their lobbyist work with the (state) agency to develop the contract language under which that money will be expended.”

He said that system can lead to major cost overruns or the poor execution of contracts, depending on the terms of the agreement.

“If a contract is not properly written on the front end, there's not much you can do on the back end to fix it,” he said.

Lee also said the chief financial officer needs to be involved in writing the contracts, making sure they adhere to state laws, rather than simply “rubber-stamping” the payments at the end of the process.

“When you really drill down into it, the chief fiscal officer of the state does not have the tools to perform the duties of a chief fiscal officer,” Lee said.

“By injecting another constitutional officer, if you will, into that process I think it will create the type of checks and balances that could help us avoid the challenges that we've seen from time to time,” he said.

Commissioner Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who is another former Senate president, supported Lee's measure, saying there “is a systemic lack of accountability in the way that agencies contract and the way that contracts are implemented.”

“This is serious business,” Gaetz said. “This is billions and billions of dollars.”

But Attorney General Pam Bondi, another commission member, raised questions about the cost of the proposal, which could require hiring more staff and updating computer systems in the CFO's office, as well as a possible constitutional “separation of powers” issue.

Bondi voted for the measure, saying she was willing to try to work on those issues as Lee's proposal advanced. But three other committee members --- Darlene Jordan, Belinda Keiser and Jacqui Thurlow-Lippisch --- voted against the proposal, effectively stalling the measure.

Lee attributed the opposition to a “turf war,” with the executive branch resisting efforts to overhaul the contracting system in its branch of government. He said similar opposition has blocked contracting proposals in the Legislature from advancing.

But there also may be a political subtext in the debate. Lee noted the commission staff analysis of his measure, which raised a series of questions, was largely based on a six-page review of the proposal by Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis' office.

Lee is expected to face Patronis in the Republican primary next year for the CFO's post.