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Gov. Rick Scott's prison overhaul plan hits resistance in Senate

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott's plan to overhaul Florida's prison system, in part by firing hundreds of correctional officers, hit a wall of resistance Thursday.

The chairman of the Senate budget committee that oversees prisons, Republican Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, declared the idea "dead on arrival" as he clashed with John Thrasher, a powerful colleague who endorsed the proposal.

Scott's plan would save $135 million by firing 1,700 employees, increasing probation officers' caseloads, cutting wardens' pay by 5 percent and shifting as many as 1,500 inmates from state-run prisons to private, for-profit lockups, which are required to operate at 7 percent less cost than state prisons.

The governor wants to use the savings to expand drug treatment, mental health, literacy and re-entry programs for inmates so they will be less likely to commit new crimes and return to prison.

Fasano expressed shock when Scott budget aide Bonnie Rogers defended putting more inmates in private prisons so as to save $2.8 million by dismissing 619 prison guards, even though state prisons have thousands of unused beds.

"What the governor wants to do is put 619 families on the unemployment line so we can move prisoners from the public sector to the private sector," Fasano said.

Rogers, former chief of staff in the Department of Corrections, said the seven private prisons can reconfigure their space to house up to 1,500 more inmates. The private prisons are paid per inmate housed — meaning potentially more profit for the private firms.

Fasano and Thrasher, former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida, had an ugly exchange after Fasano badgered the prison system's new No. 2 official, Dan Ronay, for not controlling overtime even though he has been on the job just four days.

A scathing audit of prison overtime costs said 25 medical workers collected $2 million in overtime last year — the equivalent of $80,000 per worker.

Ronay called that "atrocious," but that did not placate Fasano, who as committee chairman dominated the questioning and continued to hammer away.

"That is not fair to him," Thrasher told Fasano. Then Thrasher sought to pin the blame for prison woes on former Gov. Charlie Crist, a Fasano ally whom Thrasher actively opposed last fall after Crist bolted from the Republican Party.

When Thrasher mentioned "a governor who left us who ran for something else," Fasano cut him off abruptly.

"Oh, Sen. Thrasher, we're not going to get into politics today," Fasano said.

"We're not playing politics," Thrasher said.

Thursday's debate carried vivid echoes of the election campaign, when Scott was attacked in a TV ad by the Police Benevolent Association, the guards' union. The PBA, which backed Democrat Alex Sink, ran a commercial that showed violent inmates being released from prison as a consequence of a Scott proposal to cut $1 billion from the $2.3 billion prison budget.

Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa faulted Scott's team for advocating the shutdown of a juvenile detention center in eastern Hillsborough County to save money. Rogers sought to mollify Joyner, saying: "It was certainly not a target to your district."

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, asked whether Fasano can single-handedly thwart a major part of Scott's agenda, said: "If he can sway 21 members that something is a bad idea, then he'll get his agenda done."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Gov. Rick Scott's prison overhaul plan hits resistance in Senate 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 9:57pm]
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