Senate signs off on prison privatization bills

Jan 18, 2012

A massive effort to privatize about 30 South Florida correctional facilities is making its way through the Florida Legislature again. As Sascha Cordner reports, a Senate panel agreed Wednesday to move a pair of bills forward that would privatize the prisons AND change the way the privatization plan needs to be vetted.

Last year, the controversial issue of prison privatization caused quite a raucous in the Florida Legislature, especially the Senate.

It even prompted a lawsuit from a correctional officers union, where a judge ruled in its favor that it was unconstitutional the way the Legislature put a provision into the budget to privatize South Florida prisons, without making sure it went through the proper committee process in the form of a bill.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos disagreed, and asked Attorney General Pam Bondi to file an appeal, saying the way the legislature put it in the budget was constitutional.

However, that didn’t stop the Senate Rules Committee from filing a pair of privatization bills last week, Senate Bills 7170 and 7172.

“Senate Proposed Bill 7170 revises three statutes in the court decision that impede the ability of the Legislature to direct privatization of agency functions. Proposed Senate Bill 7172 then directs the department of Corrections one or more requests for proposals to privatize the management and operation of all correctional facilities in 18 counties in the Department of Corrections’ Southern Florida region which is Region IV.”

But, even though the lawmakers on the panel were not voting on the official bills on Wednesday, and were just agreeing to move them forward to go their respective committees, Senator Gwen Margolis could not help but voice her concern at the bill that would allow any agency to not have to report on its privatization of a program or service until after the contract is signed.

“It seems to not only deal with corrections, but every agency in the state of Florida, and the waiver is a waiver that actually says that we can put in the budget any contract for any agency. The language is pretty broad sir and that’s a little disturbing.”

Senator Evelyn Lynn also had a few issues with the bill as well, particularly that departments would not have to show the cost effectiveness, an issue that was of concern last session:

“What’s been brought up is something that appears to be, in 7170, the fact that if privatizing is required by law that privatization would be exempt from the requirement of cost effectiveness in particular.”

But, Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander says that is not the case: 

Just a clarification, it exempts the business case model when we have effectively made the decision, but it does not relieve the requirement of the minimum 7-percent cost savings that privatizations are required to get.”

Several people testified in opposition to Senate Bill 7170, including Matt Puckett. He’s with the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the group that filed a lawsuit to block the prison privatization plan on behalf of correctional officers. He’s says he’s concerned about how the bill would change the law so the Legislature can make a decision about privatizing without having the proper business analysis on how privatization could impact the state:

“I don’t know why we’re undoing these changes now. I think these are put in place so that we don’t make mistakes when we privatize. We should never make a mistake when we’re privatizing. We’re dealing with lives when we’re talking about corrections, and we’re dealing with taxpayer dollars. If you move forward with 7170, you’re opening the door to a future mistake to happen, another mistake where we lose taxpayer dollars where we don’t meet the savings. Let’s not get rid of the good laws and the speed limits that we put in place to protect the taxpayers, the citizens of Florida from privatization.”

Reshae Cherry, who’s a correctional officer at Charlotte County Institution for six years, says she’s concerned about how she could be among the 4,000  officers who could lose their job due the privatization effort.

Myself and my husband have very proudly and wholeheartedly built our family on h e backs of the department. We’re expecting our second daughter here shortly, and instead of being able to look forward to things like putting away money for a college education and looking forward to the new things that challenge our family, we spend a lot of our nights worrying about how we might deal with this privatization.”

In the end, the Senate Rules Committee voted to introduce both bills with objections from Democrats Senator Margolis and Senator Chris Smith. The committee’s chairman, Senator Thrasher, did vow that the bills will now be assigned to the proper committees for consideration. And, Senate Budget Chief JD Alexander, who pushed for the privatization effort last session, says as the process moves forward, he looks forward to the discussion, but still maintains that Florida could save about 40-million dollars, which he says could be used for other areas in the budget.