Controversial prison privatization proposal fails in Florida Senate

Would have privatized two dozen prisons

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - In a rebuke to Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his lieutenants, a bipartisan coalition defeated a plan that would have privatized two dozen prisons and other corrections facilities, putting an end to the controversial proposal with three weeks left in the legislative session.

The plan, a priority of Haridopolos and Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have moved more than 14,000 inmates in 24 state-run prisons and work camps and put more than 3,500 state workers out of a job.

Nine Republicans joined with a united Democratic caucus of 12 to kill the measure (SB 2038) on a 21-19 vote after weeks of intense lobbying by proponents, including Gov. Rick Scott, handing a victory to labor unions and a blow to Boca Raton-based GEO Group, a potential vendor.

"I accept the verdict of the Senate," Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters after the vote Tuesday evening.

The proposal, advanced by Senate budget chief JD Alexander, would have been the largest single prison privatization effort in the nation.

But questionable savings, concerns about public safety and the role of government dragged down the undertaking and created a rift within the GOP caucus as the chamber prepares to vote on its $70.6 billion spending plan.

"We can't have it both ways. If everybody's lock-step, they complain that everybody's lock-step. If Republicans vote their conscience, then supposedly there's a rift. I don't think there's any of that," said Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who at midday appeared resigned that the bill was going to die. " The Senate's always been very independent, " he said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, challenging Gardiner in a race for the Senate presidency in 2015, said he's against the bill because Republican Sens. Charlie Dean and Steve Oelrich, former sheriffs, opposed it, the savings are questionable and public safety should be a government function.

But he also said the vote sent a clear message to GOP leaders.

"There's 40 members in the Senate. I think that the quicker that people understand that there's 40 members of the Senate and a majority rules, the better that we're going to be," Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said.

Republican Sens. Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Mike Fasano of New Port Richey led the charge against the bill, joined by Latvala; Dean, R-Inverness; Oelrich, R-Cross Creek; Dennis Jones, R-Seminole; Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Greg Evers, R-Baker; and Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

Evers said he opposed the plan because he has more than 3,500 corrections workers in his Panhandle district and a GEO-run private prison, Blackwater, that is the subject of a federal investigation.

Republicans and Democrats said Tuesday's vote was not about the future senate presidency but about issues.

Oelrich, a former Alachua County sheriff, said he was "scared about the whole idea of private companies being responsible for taking away someone's freedom."

As late as Tuesday evening, Haridopolos insisted he did not "twist arms" to convince his fellow Republicans to support the proposal. But late last month, Haridoplos stripped Sen. Mike Fasano of a budget committee chairmanship after Fasano defied him in garnering opposition to the bill.

"It's toxic," Storms said of the tensions before Tuesday's vote. "It's so hostile right now."

Alexander, R-Lake Wales, insisted the proposal would have guaranteed a minimum savings of 7 percent, or $16.5 million annually, from the region's current $232.3 million budget. He and other proponents pointed to the seven for-profit prisons already operating in the state as proof that the private prisons cost taxpayers up to 28 percent less than public institutions.

But more importantly, Alexander said, the corrections department had done a poor job of managing the state's 100,000-plus inmates, as evidenced by a discovery last year that there were 12,000 empty beds. Corrections officials have since proposed shutting down at least seven prisons for a savings of $77 million.

Critics of the plan refused to accept that the savings would be realized, saying that the comparisons are impossible to calculate because of differences in the types and health of inmates, the age of the facilities, programs offered at the institutions and other factors.

"It's not even apples to oranges. It's apples to mameys. That's a Caribbean fruit," Diaz de la Portilla said during floor debate.

Diaz de la Portilla, a former Miami-Dade County commissioner, said he voted against the bill in part because counties have had bad experiences with private vendors taking over jails.

"I believe this massive privatization scheme is a big gamble," he said. "I believe it's a bigger gamble than casinos."

Jones cautioned that the outsourcing could open the door for more privatization. "Where does this end?" Jones said. "Alligator Alley. Let's privatize that. Guess what. Less state employees. We'll have a smaller budget." But, he said, drivers would have to pay a higher toll to subsidize the privatization.

"This is a bad bill."

Tuesday's vote clarifies why lawmakers last year tucked a nearly identical privatization plan into the budget rather than attempt to pass it as a stand-alone bill. And the vote is the second defeat for the plan, tossed out last year by Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford, who ruled that the way lawmakers ordered it was unconstitutional. Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing that decision on behalf of Haridopolos.

A higher court could overturn Fulford's ruling, but the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which filed the lawsuit, would likely appeal and the issue would be not be resolved during this budget year, which ends June 30.

Or Scott could order the privatization on his own, something he did not appear to favor when asked Tuesday. "The right thing is for both the House and Senate to pass the prison privatization bill," he said.

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