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Prison fight heats up as legislature, union square off over privatization

By Sascha Cordner

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-992762.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Early Monday, Governor Rick Scott confirmed that he would not appeal a circuit judge's ruling to stop a prison privatization plan from moving forward. But, just before the deadline was up, Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an appeal on behalf of the Florida Legislature. As Sascha Cordner reports, all sides are gearing up for a fight.

When Governor Rick Scott announced he would not appeal a judge's decision to block a plan to privatize 29 South Florida public prison facilities, Hal Johnson, who represents the Florida Police Benevolent Association, opposed to the privatization plan, applauded the Governor's decision.

"We're especially happy for the 36-hundred correctional officers in the South Florida area who will continue to be employed with the Department of Corrections and have a job."

But his happiness was a bit short-lived. Just before the appeal deadline late Monday, Attorney General Pam Bondi filed an appeal:

"Any policy matters on it need to be referred to the Legislature and the Governor. And, our only role in this is whether there is a reasonable basis to appeal and the Legislature asked us to appeal that issue. So, that's our role in the matter."

A spokeswoman for the Attorney General's Office says Bondi has the authority to defend the constitutionality of any law enacted by the Legislature and signed by the Governor. When asked if she did it behind the Governor's back, Bondi indicated the Governor was aware of the decision. And, following her appeal, the next day Governor Rick Scott seemed to be of the same mind:

"It's a Legislative Branch issue."

Which is exactly why Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos defended the decision to head back to court. He says the Legislature was very open and transparent when it put a provision in the budget to privatize prisons:

"I think that the courts did not make the right decision. That's the reason why we asked Attorney General Pam Bondi to challenge it. We felt strongly that we put it in the sunshine. The second part of the component is here's our choice: we can spend 22 million dollars minimum on prisons or we can put that same amount of money into schools and on health care. And, if some people want to fight this and spend more money on prisons, I'm going to fight them."

House Speaker Dean Cannon says whether a person's a judge or an average citizen, the legislative budget process can be confusing. So, he says, this appeal will help the courts clear up the subject.

"An implementing bill, a conforming bill, and budget proviso. Those combined comprise the budget, and I think that it's worth getting clarity on the propriety on those sorts of things and I think this is something that this is also something the Senate felt strongly about which is hey, we think that this decision was incorrect and it's appropriate that it be considered by the appellate courts."

But, Senator Mike Fasano, who chairs the Senate Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations AND is an outspoken opponent of prison privatization, says he does not understand why the Legislature is pushing the appeal. Fasano says the Governor opting not to appeal AND Judge Jackie Fulford's ruling sends a clear message:

"It didn't go through the appropriate committee process. It wasn't heard in criminal justice committee in the Senate. It wasn't heard in my committee that oversees the Department of Corrections budget. You would think that if we were doing such a major policy change, it would have gone through those two committees. It wasn't a stand-alone bill and that's what, if I'm not mistaken, the court has said, that it should have been a stand-alone bill because it's a single subject issue."

That's the same thought Matt Puckett with the Florida Police Benevolent Association, has.

Puckett says not only is he disappointed by the appeal, he is very upset with the Florida Department of Corrections. It's listed as a defendant in the lawsuit that his union filed against the state to block prison privatization, and the department is going ahead with soliciting prison privatization bids from prison management companies, despite Judge Jackie Fulford's ruling that the bidding process was over.

But, because the decision was appealed, the stay that Judge Fulford put in place is automatically removed.

In a statement, the Florida Department of Corrections says out of respect for the ongoing litigation, the agency will do everything else, BUT not sign a contract until the final outcome is decided. Puckett calls that disingenuous.

"For them to say that out of respect, well out of respect they should have honored the agreement that they had with our counsel not to move this quickly. So, that's statement's bogus for them to even say that to begin with. It was a double cross and it's unfair to the officers that they did that."

Puckett says the Florida Police Benevolent Association is prepared to fight, no matter what happens. In fact, all sides have said they will fight until it winds up all the way in the Supreme Court.

***Update: The Florida Department of Corrections re-opened the bidding process last Thursday and proposals from private prison companies were due Thursday, November 10th. But, during a hearing Friday, Judge Jackie Fulford told the state again that they could not move forward with the prison privatization bidding process.