Florida senate republicans break ranks, defeat prison privatization proposal

Ten Republicans broke ranks Tuesday to help Democrats defeat the union-opposed plan to privatize correctional facilities in Central and South Florida.

The Senate voted 19-21 to defeat SB 2038, which would have allowed private companies to bid on running one or all-but-one of 26 correctional facilities as the state sought to save at least $16.5 million a year. The bill included a provision prohibiting any single company from having a monopoly over all of the facilities.

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, warned those who voted against the bill they will have a heavy burden in the next few days when going to Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who oversees the Senate budget.

“The issue for me is, simply, at a time when we are stacking pennies to try to take care of the critical needs of Florida, is there not some way we could find to do our job better?” Gaetz said.

Clearly agitated, Alexander, who also wanted to shake up the Department of Corrections and is seeking to make a 58 percent cut in the state’s direct funding for the University of South Florida, wouldn’t say that those who voted no on Tuesday would face retribution.

He said the bill failed because senators were simply unwilling to accept change.

“Hard change is always hard,” he said.

How the GOP senators voted:

For: Gardiner, Bennett, Altman, Bogdanoff, Alexander, Gaetz, Thrasher, Benacquisto, Detert, Flores, Garcia, Haridopolos, Hays, Negron, Norman, Richter, Simmons, Wise.

Against: Oelrich, Diaz de la Portilla, Latvala, Jones, Fasano, Dockery, Dean, Evers, Lynn, Storms.

No Democrats voted for the measure.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said further cuts will have to come from education and health care.

While the defeat loomed, Haridopolos said — holding back his emotions — that he went forward with the vote Tuesday because the Senate needs to know where it stands as the budget is pieced together in the next couple of days.

“We need to know if we need to put aside $16 million or not,” he said. “This means we’re going to have to find the savings elsewhere. And clearly there was a lot of people who wanted to get this behind us.”

The outsourcing effort was approved as part of the state budget a year ago, only to be overturned by a Leon County Circuit Court judge who accepted the Florida Police Benevolent Association’s claim that the privatization effort should have been done as a separate bill.

Objecting to the judge’s ruling, the effort to pursue the privatization effort was seen as a priority of Haridopolos.

“I accept the verdict of the Senate,” he said. “We’ll find the savings elsewhere.”

The bill would have affected nearly 4,000 state workers, with a projected savings starting at $16.5 million a year.

As part of the plan, none of the prisons would have been turned over to a private company if the bids failed to provide the state with at least 7 percent savings from the existing costs.

The effort to privatize came as the Department of Corrections is moving forward with plans to close 11 facilities because of an overall drop in the prison population statewide.

The elimination of the privatization effort could be seen as an impediment to efforts by those in Jefferson County to maintain a correctional facility that was on the DOC cut list.

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who was seen as the leader of the effort to halt the bill, viewed the proposal as a bailout for private correctional companies on par with the federal government’s bailout of Wall Street and the auto industry.

“I think a clear message was sent by 21 of the 40 senators today, that we do not want to privatize public safety,” Fasano said. “We do not want to turn over a half-billion (dollars) of taxpayer paid-for correctional facilities to two corporations and let them earn money on the backs of taxpayers.”

Fasano’s opposition to the privatization already cost him seats on two budget committees, including one chairmanship post. He also expressed concern about Alexander’s proposal to cut USF funding because the school leadership has blocked his efforts to break the USF Polytechnic into a separate university.

Gov. Rick Scott said Monday he expected the measure to pass, but Fasano said Scott didn’t send a message to legislators on the issue since it wasn’t included in the governor’s proposed budget.

For many of those opposed to the bill, the question was more a matter of public safety than cost-cutting.

Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, a former sheriff, said “jailing for profit is not for the public good.”

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said the public perception is that the Legislature values a 7 percent savings over employees who have not received a raise in six years.

“I think it’s worth a whole lot more than that,” Jones said.

Jones added that there have been efforts in the past to privatize the Alligator Alley and the Florida lottery, so “where does it end?”

The privatization move was opposed by tea party groups as well as the NAACP.

The private companies would also have been required to give current correctional employees affected by the shift a preference when hiring.

Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, a 30-year law enforcement veteran, said he opposed allowing private companies to take away an individual’s freedom just to save the state money.

“I can’t imagine a system where we had private police that were contracted and we had to show a return on the dollar,” Oelrich said.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said he believes in smaller government, but public safety shouldn’t be run on the cheap.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said cost comparisons are difficult to judge because private prisons are able to pick which inmates to accept, taking those who would be less of a risk to decrease their costs.

Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, said if the goal was to cut 7 percent, the state should just trim the correctional budget by 7 percent.

Republican Majority Leader Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, praised Haridopolos for bringing the bill forward for a debate.

Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, said without the projected $16.5 million a year saving to prisons the Senate will have to look at cuts to education and health care.

In a release, Teamsters Local 2011, which represents 20,000 Florida Department of Corrections officers, praised the Senate vote.

“We are so grateful that a bipartisan Senate majority decided against this damaging legislation,” Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local 2011, stated. “They supported hard-working corrections officers and their communities, and they protected Florida taxpayers from spending billions on secret contracts with no public oversight.

“The Teamsters are still fighting hard against unnecessary closures of correctional facilities and work camps, but for now, we’re very pleased with the Senate’s action.”

From Sunshine State News.

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