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Empty Panhandle prison will be opened as part of Florida budget deals

TALLAHASSEE — A costly private prison in the Florida Panhandle will belatedly open this summer following a series of budget deals struck Saturday by key lawmakers, working to complete action on a new state budget.

New projects continue to surface at the last minute. Legislators steered $6 million to Florida A&M University in Tallahassee for outreach and $6 million to a new University of South Florida Polytechnic School in Lakeland — a priority of Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

The $113 million Blackwater River Correctional Institution in Milton, east of Pensacola, was approved two years ago and built by a leading private prison operator, Boca Raton's GEO Group. Between then and now, the projected inmate population has declined and the 2,000-bed lockup sits idle — a move that irked Alexander.

Lawmakers agreed to open Blackwater and added 224 beds, but they agreed that no state-run prisons will be shut down. Instead, the Corrections Department will close dormitories at various to-be-determined prisons, with no loss of jobs to correctional officers.

"We didn't want one of our prisons to close to open that facility," said prison spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger. "This is the right way to do this. None of our people will be laid off."

The prison architect, Carter Globe Lee, warned state officials in an April 2 letter that adding 224 beds could spur litigation because of federal requirements on square feet per prisoner.

Alexander dismissed that as a factor, saying the state does the same thing. "I'm telling you, we do it now routinely in state prisons. It is a way to reduce costs," Alexander said.

In a move that helped placate Gov. Charlie Crist, the Senate agreed with the House to drop a proposed rate cut to some facilities that care for the developmentally disabled. Crist expressed concerns about the way the "most vulnerable" are treated in the budget.

Today, House and Senate budget writers will decide how to divvy up $1 billion for hospitals. A major point of contention is whether to steer about $50 million in extra money to deficit-ridden Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, the state's largest Medicaid provider.

Also left undone is the role of Medicaid HMOs in managing the $19 billion state-federal program. House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater will start discussing the issue as early as today.

Budget conferees voted to eliminate a $1.8 million program that provides cash subsidies to state employees who adopt children. They reinstated $1 million to a program that pays for a toll-free hotline and outreach to counsel young pregnant women.

They allocated $1.7 million to continue to compensate Marissa Amora, who was horribly abused in state care at age 2. Her case was successfully championed by Atwater before he became Senate president. They appropriated $4.3 million for emergency services for victims of the earthquake in Haiti.

The clock has become a factor in the budget negotiations. The state Constitution requires a finished budget to be available to all 160 lawmakers for 72 hours before they can vote on it and conclude the session, which is scheduled to end Friday.

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

Empty Panhandle prison will be opened as part of Florida budget deals 04/24/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 24, 2010 11:09pm]

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