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Florida Senate budget plan would privatize prisons in 18 counties

TALLAHASSEE — In 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 that the privatization initiatives yielded a 7 percent savings.

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

The House's proposed budget, released Friday, calls for a private operator to run prison facilities and probation 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 bear a similarity to each other and the governor's proposal: They all balance the budget by privatizing more government services, cutting health care and taking hundreds of millions of dollars away from state worker benefits.

The bottom-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, Orlando-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, though House Speaker Dean Cannon said he didn't know how many were filled.

Gov. Scott, when he unveiled what he called his "jobs budget" Feb. 7, sought to cut the most: 8,645 positions, about 6,700 of which are filled.

The Legislature's aversion to cutting jobs isn't the only spot of disagreement with the governor.

Scott called for an end to hometown spending projects, Sen. Alexander proposed $46 million for the Lakeland polytechnic campus of the University of South Florida — a project Gov. Charlie Crist vetoed last year. Over all, the Senate would spend $106 million — three times as much as the House — on university capital projects.

Though they're cutting per-pupil funding, neither the House or Senate followed Scott's call to reduce it by 10 percent. Both chambers also balked at his plan to provide tax and fee cuts of $2.4 billion — an act that helped reduce his budget proposal to just under $65.9 billion.

The House and Senate budgets indicate that tax cuts won't be anywhere near that amount, though the leaders from both chambers won't say how much they'll cut.

Both chambers also refused Scott's plan to require state workers to pay more for their retirement plans and use the money to pay for tax cuts. Instead, the House and Senate reduce benefits, but keep the money in the budget.

The Senate budget assumes saving more than $1 billion, which includes a 3 percent across-the-board salary cut with the money moved into the retirement account. Cost of living adjustments would end for years served after this year and the DROP retirement program would end, beginning July 1. By contrast, the House is proposing saving $700 million from its plan, which would impose a 3 percent cut to salaries and benefits.

Staff writers Jodie Tillman, Steve Bousquet, Mary Ellen Klas, Janet Zink and Patricia Mazzei contributed to this report

Florida Senate budget plan would privatize prisons in 18 counties 03/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, March 28, 2011 10:37pm]
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