A legislative proposal to privatize about 30 prisons in most of the southern part of the state is headed for the Senate floor after a vote in the Budget Committee that angered prison guards who feel they’re not being heard.
The proposal was put into law as part of last year’s budget, to be later thrown out by a court.
Senate backers say the issue has been thoroughly vetted, with several committee meetings last year in addition to three this year, including one where nearly 50 opponents – and no proponents – were heard on the matter. But corrections officers say the proposal (SB 2038) is moving too fast, and lawmakers should slow the process down.
The Budget Committee on Wednesday heard only from a representative of the Teamsters, which represents the corrections officers, and from TaxWatch, which supports the idea, before voting 14-4 to send it to the full Senate. About 30 corrections officers in the committee room yelled “shame, shame” after the vote – and the driving force behind the measure, Budget Chairman Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, later heard from several of them in a hastily-arranged meeting at the Capitol.
But Alexander and other backers say their minds aren’t swayed. The move makes sense financially, they say – some estimates say it could save more than $20 million in the first year – and lawmakers also are intent on asserting their authority to privatize state agency functions without needing the executive branch to give the OK.
There was some debate on the particulars of the bill on Wednesday, including intensive discussion of who would be responsible for the cost of tracking down escapees from private prisons. The bill now says that costs incurred for capturing any escapees during the first 48 hours would be borne by the private prison company. After that, anyone caught would likely be apprehended as part of normal day-to-day law enforcement activity, backers say.
The prison could still be liable for civil damages if an escapee harms someone, they also point out.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has emerged as the leading Republican critic of a plan driven by his own party’s leadership, took exception to the limit on how long private companies would be responsible for capturing escapees.
“The private company … that’s going to make millions off this deal will not be held liable after 48 hours if a murderer or rapists escapes?” an incredulous Fasano said Wednesday. “It will be on the backs of the taxpayers?”
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, a backer of the proposal, pointed out that currently without privatization, the cost of finding escapees is entirely borne by the state.
Fasano also questioned the amount of savings the deal will bring to the state, and pressed Department of Corrections officials, particularly on the costs associated with privatization – mainly the paying out of due benefits to those officers who leave the employ of the state, either to go work for one of the private companies, or who simply quit or are laid off. They’d be due unpaid sick leave and vacation time and other benefits, but it’s not clear how much that cost would be.
Under an amendment added to the bill Wednesday, private contractors will have to reimburse the state for all accumulated leave paid out to such employees, up to a total of $8 million. Backers of the bill acknowledge that the total cost of such payouts could be as much as $15 million, but even that figure is disputed by opponents as possibly too low.
The Senate has no floor debates scheduled before next week and there’s no indication yet from Senate President Mike Haridopolos how quickly the matter could come up for a vote. The House is also working on its own similar plan.
–David Royce, News Service of Florida