Scott’s Prison Privatization Scheme Dies
FlaglerLive | February 15, 2012
A bipartisan coalition of senators bucked the chamber’s Republican leadership Tuesday and rejected a proposal to privatize several prisons, but got warnings from leaders that it will have a cost in further budget cuts.
In a dramatic showdown with Senate President Mike Haridopolos and three other top leaders – one of whom controls the Senate’s budget, one who controls the calendar and one who will be the next president – opponents of the bill managed to kill it on a 19-21 vote.
The odd coalition that lined up against the bill included Republican populists who have become occasional mavericks, Democrats and some members of the GOP caucus that almost always vote with their party, but come from areas laden with corrections officers who opposed the idea.
The measure was sold as a simple savings measure by most of its backers. The bill (SB 2083) would have required bidders to guarantee 7 percent savings over what the Department of Corrections currently spends to run the prisons, which are spread across 18 South Florida counties. That would amount to about $16.5 million minimum in savings, supporters argued.
That “will buy a lot of textbooks,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton.
But senator after senator rose on the floor to raise objections – some said the savings wouldn’t materialize, others argued the state could just as easily find 7 percent savings if pressed. Some said the companies that would bid couldn’t be trusted to run them well – or would skimp on safety, all arguments that backers rejected.
But most said they were opposed to the measure because it would do wrong by corrections officers who have a tough life as it is, working for little pay among some of the toughest working conditions imaginable.
Sen. Paula Dockery talked about the nasty working conditions faced by guards, and noted the private companies would likely find the required cost savings by cutting benefits.
“‘This is the way we’re going to treat them?” Dockery asked. “‘We should be thanking all those brave men and women … and not try to shunt you off on a private corporation who may or may not hire you.”
Sen. Dennis Jones, who voted against the measure, also spoke up for state-employed prison guards, with a little bit of a jab at his Republican colleagues, who aren’t generally well liked by many state government workers because of their zeal for shrinking the state workforce.
“You know, what’s wrong with state employees?” Jones asked. “They’re our employees. We should be taking care of them instead of kicking them under the bus.”
But defeating the measure would come with consequences warned Sen. Don Gaetz, in line to be the next president. The Republican from Niceville predicted caustically that many of those who voted against the bill would likely be the same people coming to the Senate’s budget chairman, Sen. JD Alexander, pleading for a few extra dollars here and there for various prized programs. The money already was tight and certainly isn’t there now, he said, with at least $16 million in savings passed up with the rejection of prison privatization.
“The burden lies heavy on those who vote no and then come to Sen. Alexander” to ask for money in the budget, Gaetz said. “At a time when we are stacking pennies to take care of the critical needs of Florida, is there not some way we can find to do our jobs better?”
In addition to Alexander and Gaetz, the bill was also backed by Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, rules chairman and the sponsor of the bill. He acknowledged the gallery full of corrections officers watching debate and said he appreciates them greatly. But he said he listened to the voters who sent him to Tallahassee.
“They didn’t tell me to come here and grow government, they told me to come here and limit government,” Thrasher said.
Two Republican opponents who don’t usually bolt their own party, but who vocally opposed the privatization measure were Sens. Steve Oelrich of Cross Creek and Charlie Dean of Inverness. Both are former sheriffs, and have run jails. Both also live in areas with huge numbers of corrections officers and other state workers.
Oelrich said that there are just some things that only government should do.
“I’m scared about the whole idea of private companies taking away someone’s freedom … with the primary notion that we expect them to spend less dollars, to save dollars,” said Oelrich. “I know there is a chance we could save some money…..If the governor wants to cut 7 percent out of the corrections budget then lo and behold let him to do that, he’s the chief executive.”
Dean agreed, saying savings should be found “on the back of the DOC employees.
“Jailing for profit is not the public good,” Dean said.
A few questions remain about the fate of the privatization effort this year. For one, backers say the governor has the authority to privatize prisons unilaterally, whether the Legislature wants them to be privatized or not.
Also, the Legislature passed the privatization plan last year, though it was stuck in the state budget in a way that lawmakers who opposed it couldn’t really vote against it because they supported the rest of the spending plan. A judge threw out that privatization requirement, which was the reason it resurfaced this year. A spokesman for the Police Benevolent Association, which sued over that law, said it wasn’t clear what would happen if the state prevailed in its appeal. Theoretically, it could probably move forward.
Thirdly, other efforts to privatize prisons remain – a couple of proposals for privatization are contained in other budget language filed this year.
Haridopolos said Tuesday after the vote that he isn’t sure where the money will come from to make up for the savings, but noted that education and health care, the two biggest parts of the budget, but also two of the most supported areas, are the likeliest targets.
–David Royce, News Service of Florida