Gov. Rick Scott priority Florida prison privatization push stalls despite big spending

— 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, and CCA have been steady contributors in Florida and throughout the nation for years. But since 2004 in Florida, GEO's contributions peaked from a low in 2004 of just over $89,000 to more than $833,000 in 2010, just before legislators began publicly discussing the privatization plan.

GEO also spent up to $520,000 on a cadre of lobbyists in 2010 and up to $475,000 from January through September last year. CCA spent up to $80,000 in 2010 and up to $45,000 last year through September.

Haridopolos and his budget chief, J.D. Alexander, insist Florida taxpayers will save from $16.5 million to $44 million a year once the region is privatized, because the contracts require vendors to cost 7 percent less than what the state is paying now to run the prisons. Much of those savings are anticipated to come from lower salaries and fewer benefits for the non-­unionized employees. About 3,800 prison workers now on the state payroll would be out of jobs if the privatization takes place.

The political contributions were not a factor in GOP leaders' decision to privatize, Haridopolos said recently.

"Yes, there's some vested interests. That's what Madison talked about when he came up with the Constitution. So there's not a lack of money on either side," Haridopolos said.

Haridopolos said the cost savings are his goal, and repeated his argument that the money would be better spent on education and health care.

"If we're given the same quality of work at a lower price, who wouldn't select the lower price at the same quality?" he said.

PBA Executive Director Matt Puckett also said he did not believe the privatization effort was linked to political support from the prison companies, facing a decline in prisoners and mixed reactions to privatization nationwide.

"They've been giving money for decades. This is a different moment in time. They're looking at a declining prison population. They're looking at declining revenue. So they're striking now. I don't think it has anything to do with the contributions they give," he said.

Staff researcher Niels Heimeriks contributed to this story.

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