TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott's plan to curtail state spending and create 700,000 new jobs includes slashing $1 billion from the prison budget by cutting salaries, reducing health care costs and expanding inmate-run vegetable farms.
But people who know how the corrections system works call the Republican candidate for governor's plan a "hoax" and a "shell game." The Florida Department of Corrections is the nation's third-largest prison system with more than 100,000 inmates in 139 facilities. Scott's proposed cut represents more than a third of the agency's $2.4 billion budget.
Experts who dissected Scott's plan for the Times/Herald include James McDonough, a former corrections secretary under a Republican governor; state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who for years helped craft prison budgets; and David Murrell, leader of the statewide prison guards union. The union supports Scott's Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.
"We're going to benchmark what other states are doing," Scott said Wednesday in Tampa. "There's things such as what Texas does. They have the prisoners grow their own food. You just look at the layers of management and things like that. … We shouldn't be more extensive than other states."
The Republican candidate's cost-cutting ideas have sent shock waves through the prison work force at a time of near-record unemployment in Florida, especially for lower-income families who represent the vast majority of prison employees.
"It would be devastating," said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the prison system. "You would have to close prisons."
Scott's plan has angered the politically influential union that represents correctional officers. The Police Benevolent Association months ago backed Sink and now has another motive to ensure Scott doesn't win.
"It's a total hoax," PBA executive director Murrell said of Scott's plan. "There's no way he can do that, unless he lets a whole bunch of prisoners out of prisons."
In his campaign literature, Scott proposes to model Florida after Texas by "reducing per-prisoner costs to Texas' level."
That worries the PBA, because Texas pays a first-year prison guard about $3,000 a year less than Florida's starting salary of $31,000.
In its zeal to bash Scott, the PBA issued misleading information about the candidate. In a lengthy e-mail to members, a union leader said Scott wants to cut pension benefits and stop tying raises to inflation. It's not true, and even Murrell acknowledged that some of the e-mail's language was unsubstantiated or poorly worded.
Still, the union said Scott has emphasized cutting state jobs so much that its fears are well-grounded.
Scott promises voters he will cut the state work force by 5 percent, and one of every four state employees works in corrections. Even the suggestion of closing a prison sets off economic fears, because many prisons are in small towns where they are a major employer.
Scott's plan also would require prisons to grow more of their own food for inmates to eat, but prison officials say that would provide minor cost savings.
The agency fired two private food service vendors two years ago and now cooks all prison meals in house to save money.
"I think he's off base," said former Corrections Secretary McDonough, who served for two years under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.
Calling Scott's set of numbers "a shell game," McDonough said the daily meal cost per inmate is now $2.27 and he can't see it getting much lower.
Scott's top economic adviser, who helped write the prison plan, noted that Scott does not have the resources to assemble a comprehensive budget plan.
"These are ways of highlighting the beginning of an accountability budget review," said adviser Donna Arduin, who served as Jeb Bush's budget director. "This is the beginning of a process, not the end."
Florida officials say the agency's per diem cost has risen 5.7 percent over the past decade, a period in which the total inmate population rose 46 percent.
Corrections officials point out that they have had to withstand several rounds of cuts in recent years due to revenue shortfalls, including a $68 million cut this year from 2009. But the inmate population continues to grow.
State Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who for years has been in charge of crafting the prison budget, says further cuts in prison spending could pose safety hazards.
"It's a very lofty plan. I would like to see how it would work," Crist said. "I would be concerned about public risks. At this point, we have made the cuts that are possible without putting the public at risk."
Union head Murrell said Scott is playing fast and loose with numbers, and people's lives.
"The way he uses figures is like what George Bush Sr. used to call voodoo economics," Murrell said. "He thinks if he runs enough ads he can convince people that's the truth."
Times political editor Adam C. Smith, Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.