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Upfront

Tallahassee's conflicted interests

Why real ethics reform will never happen in Florida

A criminal investigation doesn't always mean a victory for integrity, however. After he resigned from both his Speaker of the House gig and his six-figure job at Northwestern Florida State College in disgrace, Ray Sansom's criminal charges were dropped by state prosecutor Willie Meggs in 2011. Sansom has since filed suit against the state for the cost of the litigation to the tune of $817,518.73.

"That tells you something right there," Wilcox says. "You're saying that's not a crime? To steer money to a college in your district and then take over a $100,000 job as you're sworn in a speaker and $6 million to build an airplane hangar for your biggest donor, that's not a crime? Maybe we should take some action [and] open up the budget process so that one person can't slip money into a budget and nobody knows it's there."

As the state government currently ponders its projected $437 million budget surplus, a $4.5 million website designed to allow the public nearly unlimited access to the budgetary process is currently under threat of going dead over its $1 million annual licensing fee (though it's not currently accessible to the public). That website, Transparency 2.0 – which Integrity Florida and the First Amendment Foundation were recently given access to – was the product of a 2011 law mandating the governor's office to create it. The Senate funded it initially and handed it over to the governor's office, and now there's a dispute over how it will be maintained, according to a Miami Herald report. Ironically, the project only received one bid, a fact Integrity Florida's Dan Krassner told the newspaper "might be the rare exception to the rule where you have a patented technology no one else had."

But the apparent stall on this next step toward transparency comes as little surprise to Amy Ritter, research director for liberal watchdog group Florida Watch Action. The group monitors the governor's impact on the middle class and is responsible for the Pink Slip Rick campaign.

"I think a lot of legislators aren't used to organizations and people keeping a watchful eye during session when they're up in Tallahassee, far away, insulated, where there are more lobbyists than there are legislators," she says. "I think they've gotten away with a lot. And I think having a governor like Rick Scott has allowed them to get away with a lot over the past two years. They're just not used to having a spotlight shined on them up in the capitol."

Florida Watch Action, along with Progress Florida, launched the Adams Street Project (named after a popular thoroughfare in Tallahassee) during the 2012 legislative session in order to directly confront lawmakers on video, forcing them to explain some of their choices, predominantly on education spending and cuts. On one occasion, she says, state Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, knocked an Adams Street activist's camera out of his hand for asking whether the senator "cared about higher education" after voting on a budget that cut $259 million from the state's colleges.

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