Dockery says Buss was punished for speaking up on privatizing prisons
Sen. Paula Dockery, a three-time chairwoman of the Senate committee that handles prison issues, came to the defense of departing Department of Corrections Secretary Ed Buss on Friday, saying that he made the mistake of speaking his mind on the controversial prison privatization effort. Buss resigned abruptly Wednesday after six months on the job.
“The governor hired Ed Buss from Indiana because of his record as a reformer,’’ said Dockery, R-Lakeland. “I think Secretary Buss arrived with the expectation that he would have the autonomy to make changes but I think the governor – and/or his inner circle – was uncomfortable with that autonomy.
“My gut would tell me that of all the issues that have come up, privatizing prisons was the deciding factor.”
Legislators tucked into the budget the requirement that all prisons in an 18-county area from Lake Okeechobee southward would be run by private companies. However, after the measure was adopted, a deputy of Buss’ told the governor’s budget staff that the effort could "cripple the agency" and cost the state $25 million in overtime, comp time and sick leave benefits owed to the 3800 employees who would be laid off under the plan.
Privatizing prisons “is not a priority in the Senate,’’ Dockery said. “I don’t think if you had a straight up vote in the Senate it would pass.’’
Instead, it was tucked into the final budget language by senate leadership, with no discussion or debate. The committee in charge of the prison budget did not include it in the bill the committee passed, instead it was added to the budget as proviso language – a signal, Dockery said, that they needed to sidestep to regular review process.
“Everything that’s been done on privatization has been done in secrecy, in private,” Dockery said.
Among the vocal opponents to the idea have been the incoming chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Crestview, Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey and Dockery.
“If Secretary Buss had been able to fend off the privatization effort for a year, they’d have to battle it over again and maybe they wouldn’t have the votes,’’ she said.
Dockery said that she did not know Buss, and if she had been the governor would have preferred to find someone from Florida. “But once he was picked, and picked for his reputation as a reformer…he should has been listened to.”
Dockery said that as a newcomer to government and politics, Scott “had no knowledge of the prison system and it seems to me he would want to rely on an expert instead of cutting him off.”
She said the sudden ouster of Buss will send a message to other executives working for the governor.
“There is a bit of a chilling effect,’’ she said. “This guy was kind of bucking the system. In the past, secretaries have implemented policies they don’t think are necessarily in the best interest of the public but because they are working for the governor and they do what he wants them to do.”
She would prefer to have administrators allowed to speak their minds, and defend it with facts. “The guy happened to be independent enough to question it publicly and that was the death knell,’’ she said.
Dockery said she doesn’t know who is behind the effort. She noted that Sen. JD Alexander, the budget chairman, has defended it – as he did yesterday after meeting with the governor. “If JD wants to own it, he has to answer for it,'' she said. "Is he doing it at the behest of the Senate president (Sen. Mike Haridopolos) or for someone else?”
Alexander said he supported the ouster of Buss and argues that privatization will have a clear economic benefit to the state. Others have noted that it will also weaken the powerful unions that now represent correctional officers, a priority of some Republican leaders and Scott.
Dockery, however, is not persuaded. “It’s not only not going to save money, it’s going to affect public safety,’’ she said. “It’s more than just money. It’s a complete change in policy.”