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South Florida private prison plan back in court

TALLAHASSEE — While the state largely has abandoned its push to privatize 29 South Florida prisons, lawyers were back in court Wednesday arguing if the Legislature was right to hatch the plan at all.

The issue: whether lawmakers were allowed to propose the massive privatization through last-minute budget language called proviso — a process that bypasses the Legislature's long-standing committee structure.

"This is a gross misuse of proviso power," M. Stephen Turner, an attorney for the Florida Police Benevolent Association, told a three-judge panel in the 1st District Court of Appeal.

Last year, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford blocked the state from shifting 4,000 public correctional officers to private companies, saying the Legislature should have passed a stand-alone bill rather than use budget fine print to achieve its aims.

That ruling all but killed the privatization plan, which expires Saturday when a new budget year begins.

That fact left Judges Nikki Ann Clark, Ronald Swanson and Chief Judge Robert Benton hesitant to wade into what they called a "moot case."

Attorneys argued, however, that the ruling could shape future behavior of the top lawmakers who craft the state the budget.

In this case, the Legislature's action was particularly "heinous," Turner argued, because Gov. Rick Scott couldn't impose a veto, even if he'd wanted to.

"He would have had to veto the entire (Department of Corrections) budget," Turner said.

Scott has supported privatizing prisons, including a failed effort last legislative session involving 27 prisons and work camps in 18 counties.

Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau, arguing for Attorney General Pam Bondi, asked the judges to overturn Fulford's ruling and uphold the Legislature's ability to determine its own proviso language.

Judges may not rule at all if they decide Bondi lacked the right to appeal the case after the Department of Corrections declined to do so. The attorney general's office could have asked the circuit court for permission to appeal but did not.

"The attorney general has the broad power to appear for this case if there's a public interest," Glogau argued.

Turner replied, "In this case, the attorney general is not protecting the public, she's protecting the Legislature."

Brittany Alana Davis can be reached at 850-224-7263 or bdavis@tampabay.com.

South Florida private prison plan back in court 06/27/12 [Last modified: Thursday, June 28, 2012 1:05am]

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