Miami Herald: Legislature wants to privatize prisons, probation officers

The Legislature wants to hand over control of prisons and probation services to private companies. The Senate’s plan is the most extreme and unexpected.

March 28, 2011- In what could signal a massive private takeover of public prisons, the Florida Senate quietly slipped language into its newly proposed budget Monday that seeks to give corporations the chance to run correctional facilities and probation services in 18 counties

The move — which could shift nearly $600 million to private firms — surprised prison guards, their unions and even the head of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, Mike Fasano, who said his committee was opposed to the idea of privatizing prisons when it was proposed by Gov. Rick Scott’s aides . “We made it clear that we weren’t interested. We moved on without doing it,” said Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “And now it appears in the budget. I’m not pleased. It is a huge, substantive issue. It’s a major policy change and it should have at least been discussed publicly.”

The plan’s architect, Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, said the proposal was all about doing more with less and reducing the size of government. “We looked at the work of the subcommittee and realized we needed more savings,” Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said. He estimated the privatization initiatives yielded a 7 percent savings.

The budget language doesn’t appear to favor any one vendor although a leading contender is GEO Group, whose healthcare arm, GEO Care, has contributed at least $126,000 to state parties and candidates since 2009.

The House’s proposed budget, released Friday, takes a far more measured approach to privatizing probation and prisons. It calls for a private operator to run the facilities and services in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Those two counties are included in the Senate’s plan, which seeks to privatize services all the way north to Manatee County.

While the two chambers differ in their approaches and the amount they budget, both proposals bear a similarity to each other and the governor’s proposal: They all balance the budget by privatizing more government services, deeply cutting healthcare and taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from state worker benefits.-line difference between the two chamber’s proposed budgets appears large: nearly $3.3 billion. The House proposes spending $66.5 billion next budget year, which starts July 1. The Senate proposes $69.8 billion.

The Senate plan appears bigger because it expands the Turnpike Enterprise by folding in operations from the Tampa-Hillsborough County, Orland-Orange County and Mid-Bay Bridge systems. Total savings: $25 million. Also, the Senate brings the state’s five water management districts into the budget in order to lower property taxes – a move that some say might not be legal because the water management districts are separate governments from the Legislature.

But Alexander said the Legislature has the power to oversee the districts’ taxing powers and so the Senate chopped their budgets by a total of $125 million. He said the Southwest Florida Water Management District has so much money in savings, $850 million, that it could run without levying taxes for more than two years.

The Senate also seeks to eliminate 1,541 jobs from the state budget – many of which are unfilled. The House would eliminate about 5,300 jobs, although House Speaker Dean Cannon said he didn’t know how many were filled.


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