Florida lawmakers are hoping the creation of a new state information technology agency might save taxpayers money. But, despite a unanimous vote of support, not everyone is certain that it will and some are questioning the bill’s chances of becoming law.
Margate Democratic Senator Jeremy Ring gave the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on General Government a deluge of reasons for consolidating the state’s technology within a single, standalone agency. Ring mentioned how Florida is the only state without a Chief Information Officer.
“As you know, because we’ve discussed this quite a bit, our state ranks last or close to last in virtually every measurement related to IT,” Ring said during a committee meeting Wednesday.
Ring also warned the state’s cybersecurity could be at risk. In the past, he’s cited the recent security breach at big box retailer Target as a prime example of what could happen without a sufficiently robust technology plan. And a state with a $75-billion budget has a lot to lose. But, some committee members, including Kissimmee Democratic Senator Darren Soto, wondered how much the state currently spends on technology and whether Florida had anything to gain from the creation of a new agency.
“I noticed in the fiscal impact, I would’ve assumed that this would save money ultimately but, it’s kind of gray on that area. Would you want to touch on that subject a little bit?” Soto questioned.
Ring admitted the answer is a bit of a catch-22 – the state will only know how much it’s saving if it spends the money needed to create the agency. Ring’s bill would appropriate close to $5 million for the agency’s inaugural year and $3 million every year thereafter. That money would go to salaries for an additional 25 employees who’ll be moving from the governor’s office to the Department of Management Services. But, the bill’s future is far from certain. In fact, the Senate has passed similar bills numerous times, only to be thwarted by the more conservative House or the governor’s veto pen. The latter pitfall Ring joked about when addressing the committee’s Chair, Umatilla Republican Senator Alan Hays.
“This has been your bill every year and I don’t think you know it either. But, somehow you end up doing it and it keeps getting vetoed. So we’re going to try this a little differently,” Ring teased.
“Didn’t your dad ever tell you to keep quiet sometimes?” Hays retorted.
The bill Hays supported in 2012 did make it through both houses but was vetoed by Governor Rick Scott, effectively defunding the state’s first iteration of a tech agency, even though that department still exists in statute. But this year seems different. After months of trouble with the state’s $63-million unemployment benefit website CONNECT and with more expensive tech projects on the horizon, Ring argued the state can’t afford to wait.
“This is critical in light of all the problems with DEO’s CONNECT and understanding in the next few years we’re going to have the FLAIR project coming up as well as new human resources projects coming up, which are big $100-million item tickets,” Ring said.
It’s big projects like CONNECT and FLAIR, the state’s accounting system, that have many officials changing their tune when it comes to supporting the creation of a new state agency. The proposed Agency for State Technology, or AST, would be in charge of administering any tech project costing more than $50-million dollars.