TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Millions of dollars in campaign contributions from for-profit prison companies may not be enough this year to push through a prison privatization plan that is a priority of Gov. Rick Scott and Republican legislative leaders.
The push to privatize one-fifth of the state corrections facilities along with all inmate health care could net prison companies hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts, and those companies have spent millions in the past year trying to win support for the plan.
But Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, who made the prison outsourcing one of his top goals, put the bill on hold twice last week because he lacked the votes within his Republican caucus to pass it.
Research by The Palm Beach Post shows that Boca Raton-based GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America, or CCA, have contributed nearly $2 million to candidates and political parties since Scott's election.
GEO has contributed at least $475,000 in the past year, including $336,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.
During the 2010 election cycle, the company contributed at least $880,000 - more than two-thirds of that going to the Republican Party - including $25,000 to defray costs of Scott's inauguration. Just before last year's legislative session kicked off in March, GEO gave $25,000 to a political committee headed by House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
CCA contributed a minimum of $38,500 for the 2012 election cycle and at least $62,000 for the 2010 Florida elections.
The contributions do not include money given by principals of the corporations or their lobbyists.
Asked about the companies' siz able contributions, Haridopolos said unions as well as the prison companies are big donors. And he's correct.
Labor unions in Florida have contributed more than $1.3 million since 2009 to legislators, the Cabinet and the political parties. That includes about $586,000 from the Florida Police Benevolent Association and $284,000 from the Teamsters. The PBA represented corrections workers until defeated by the Teamsters in the fall.
But privatization is not the only issue labor unions are fighting in Tallahassee. The unions lost one battle over pensions last year when the legislature ordered all state workers to contribute 3 percent of their salaries to their pensions. The retirement age for firefighters and police officers was raised from 55 to 60 and from 25 years to 30 years of service for full pensions, changes law enforcement unions are fighting to undo.
Political activity increased on both sides when Scott, on the campaign trail in 2010, opened the door for a major privatization by pledging to slash $1 billion from prison spending. GEO contributions rose sharply, and the PBA launched a tough television ad campaign equating Scott's proposed spending cuts to setting dangerous criminals on the loose.
Florida legislators included a sweeping privatization proposal in last year's budget, signed into law by Scott in May. The plan would have outsourced more than two dozen prisons and all other Department of Corrections operations, including work camps and re-entry facilities, in the 18-county region south of Polk County to the Florida Keys. A separate plan also privatized all health care services for the state's 100,000-plus inmates.
Judge killed initial plan
GEO affiliate GEO Care is one of the businesses in the running for the lucrative health care contract, which could garner up to $1.5 billion for seven years. GEO Care is headed by Jorge Dominicis, a lobbyist who previously worked for Florida Crystals Corp.
A Tallahassee judge late last year scrapped the privatization effort, saying the way legislators went about approving it - by blending it into the budget bill instead of putting it up for consideration in a stand-alone bill - was unconstitutional. The PBA filed the challenge.
Last week, the union representing nurses filed a similar lawsuit against corrections officials over health care privatization.
Legislators revived the prison privatization plan as a stand-alone bill this time, but Haridopolos has delayed a vote on the measure, which would require at least two companies to take over Department of Corrections duties, after it became clear that Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican fiercely opposed to the measure, had the votes to stall the effort by first requiring a study. In retaliation, Haridopolos stripped Fasano of his chairmanship of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, saying he had lost confidence in the veteran legislator.
Backing like-minded pols
CCA spokesman Scott Owen said his Nashville-based company gives to legislators who share its philosophy. "We participate in the process just as other organizations do, including public employee unions," he said. "We do contribute to support those who are either supportive of public-private partnership or receptive to that."
GEO, which did not respond to several requests for comment,