TALLAHASSEE — A Naples-based think tank unveiled today an open government website, a database of public spending that is perhaps the most comprehensive in the Sunshine State.
From the website, FloridaOpenGov.org, users can sift through billions of dollars in government spending at state and local levels, from school districts to state agencies. Payroll data, with salaries and benefits, can be searched by name, as can state payments to public and private vendors.
The Foundation for Government Accountability, a free-market research group founded by a former Maine legislator, announced its website at the Capitol on Monday with Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Rep. Matt Hudson , R-Naples.
The information on the site took months to compile through public records requests and cost $15,000 to build, said Tarren Bragdon, who heads the Foundation for Government Accountability, a nonprofit established in June.
"Sure, the average person could get this information, but do they know where to go?" Bragdon said. "Do they have the thousands of dollars to spend? And do they have the knowledge and tools to interpret it?"
Under Gov. Rick Scott 's administration, the state has made steps toward transparency, in spite of significant stumbles, including failing to provide public records from his transition into office. Nonetheless, Scott launched a website, FloridaHasARightToKnow.com, where anyone can search payroll data and find information about state contracts and pensions.
And transparency is among Atwater's stated priorities. His website allows users to search state vendor payments, contracts and other financial information, but searches often require exact search terms and a close knowledge of the available material.
"You have to remember there's a huge difference between transparency and access," said Barbara A. Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, who has studied information accessibility in Florida.
The data at FloridaOpenGov.org is presented with bar graphs or in spreadsheets that can be searched and manipulated easily.
"It's going to be certainly one of the best (transparency websites) in Florida," Petersen said.
She said the search function on the site is superior to others. And being able to sort a spreadsheet without having to import massive amounts of data to a home computer is crucial. But a complete site, she said, would allow users to download government contract documents. The Foundation for Government Accountability provides only payment data — just the numbers.
Bragdon's Naples organization has ties to national think tanks, including the State Policy Network and the Cato Institute, and he has published reports supporting Florida's drug-testing requirement for welfare recipients and a 2006 Medicaid reform pilot.
Before migrating to Florida, Bragdon was among the most powerful conservative voices in Maine's capital, Augusta. A member of the House of Representatives at age 21, he served two terms before taking over a policy research group. He began lobbying for tax breaks and limited government. He helped draft and pass a controversial health-care overhaul in the state.
He was a thorn for the state's unions, in part because of an open government website he published as head of the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Republican lawmakers propped up anti-spending arguments with the salary data Bragdon advertised, said Chris Quint, executive director of the Maine State Employees Association.
"It's just a way for Tarren to gain some points with his conservative allies," Quint said.
Florida unions, accustomed to conservative politics and generous open records laws, are unperturbed by the new website.
"In Florida we have a culture of public records, and public employee salaries are a public record," said Doug Martin, spokesman for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in Florida.
In Lee County, Robert Ball, chief of the Port Authority that operates the airports, is the sixth-highest paid county employee in the state. He made $298,007 in 2011, according to the website.
Information in the database can be sorted and ranked. One can find, for example, that the highest-paid county employee is Joni Armstrong Coffey, the attorney for Broward County. In Lee County, Robert Ball, chief of the Port Authority that operates the airports, is the sixth-highest paid county employee in the state. He made $298,007 in 2011, according to the website.
Other data can be sorted easily: mileage reimbursements, overtime pay, interest paid on late invoice payments, among dozens of other categories.
"This is an enormous tool," said Hudson, whose eastern Collier district includes Bragdon's office.
He said the government has made strides in transparency but some of the online tools lack depth.
"They're a snapshot in time," he said. "This site I think gives the user the ability to actually look