TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In a rebuke to their own leadership, nine Senate Republicans joined the chamber’s Democrats Tuesday to kill a proposed handover of South Florida’s state prisons to private companies.
The bill (SB 2038), which would have been the largest prison privatization in the United States, was defeated 21-19. Opponents picked up a ‘no’ vote in Democratic Sen. Gary Siplin of Orlando, who earlier supported the plan.
The measure had been considered a must-do by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, rules chair John Thrasher and budget chief JD Alexander. They now will have to look elsewhere to help plug a $1 billion-plus deficit in this year’s state budget.
“I accept the verdict of the Florida Senate,” Haridopolos, of Merritt Island, said after Tuesday’s debate. The expected savings from prison privatization were last pegged at $16.5 million yearly.
“There’s a general reluctance of all of us to embrace change,” added Alexander, explaining the loss. The prisons to be privatized in the plan now cost the state $232 million; the plan would have asked for a bidder to guarantee at least a 7 percent savings.
The Lake Wales Republican added: “But it was a bold proposal to find a better way to do a better job.”
A group of corrections officers watching from the gallery disagreed, cheering and jumping as the vote was announced. Nearly 4,000 prison jobs in 24 facilities in 18 South Florida counties could have been affected.
It wasn’t clear whether Gov. Rick Scott, who supports the idea of privatizing prisons, would now do so through his executive authority.
“The right thing is for both the House and the Senate to pass the prison privatization bill,” he said earlier on Tuesday.
Sen. Don Gaetz, who will be senate president next year, warned colleagues who vote against privatization not to later ask for money for special projects.
“When we think about all the things that are so valuable to our constituents, and we go back to Senator Alexander or other appropriation chairs and ask they be included at this late date, remember the money has to come from somewhere,” the Niceville Republican said.
Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who led the charge against privatization, said the bill was “bad public policy.” He paid the price for his opposition when Haridopolos on Feb. 1 stripped him of his chairmanship of the Senate budget panel that oversees spending on prisons and the courts.
“This is not the direction the state of Florida should go,” Fasano said. “We don’t privatize public prisons. You don’t put corrections officers and their families out of work just so corporations can make a profit.”
Siplin said he ultimately voted against the measure because he wasn’t convinced it would solve the state’s money woes.
“I think it was appropriate and proper to have the bill come to the floor, hear all the discussion, and see whether it would assist in balancing the budget,” Siplin said. “But I thought, based on the evidence, that we can still find some other funds some other ways.”
Other opponents maintained that public safety, including corrections, shouldn’t be contracted out.
“You know, I’m not a big government guy. But government should be in charge of the custody, care and control of inmates,” said Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican and retired sheriff. “That’s government’s responsibility.”
Privatizing prisons is as wrong as privatizing the courts, the police, or the military, he added.
Nan Rich of Sunrise, the Senate’s Democratic leader, told her fellow senators that corrections officers’ starting salary is $34,000 and they haven’t had a raise in six years.
“They are loyal and valuable state employees who do a job that not many of us would do,” she said.
But Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican, said he remembered what voters told him when he most recently campaigned for office.
“They didn’t tell me to come here and grow government; they told me to limit government,” he said. “So I can say with a good conscience, I tried.”
The Legislature passed a South Florida prison-privatization plan last year but the union that then represented corrections officers sued over it.
A judge ruled that prison privatization was unconstitutional because it was slipped into the annual budget and not passed as a stand-alone law. Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing the judge’s decision.
This year’s bill was intended to work around the judge’s ruling, though it also isn’t clear what will happen if the state ultimately wins the appeal.
Florida already has seven privately-run prisons. Corrections Corporation of America, based in Nashville, runs the Bay, Graceville and Lake City correctional facilities, and South Florida’s Moore Haven correctional facility, its website says. The GEO Group, headquartered in Boca Raton, operates South Florida’s South Bay correctional facility and Broward Transition Center, and Blackwater correctional facility in the Panhandle, according to its website.
Associated Press reporter Gary Fineout contributed to this report. Follow James L. Rosica on Twitter: http://twitter.com/jlrosica
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