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Florida private prison fight puts state on defense

The state has twice squared off in court with a union for prison workers.

Twice the union has won and the state has lost.

Is the state prepared to lose a third time?

The Florida Police Benevolent Association is trying to prevent the state from hiring a private vendor to run 29 South Florida prisons, an idea hatched by the Legislature and approved by Gov. Rick Scott.

In a year when lawmakers ordered state workers to contribute 3 percent of their pay to their pensions, the region-wide outsourcing of so many prisons at once struck the PBA as almost vindictive. The Legislature said it wants to save money, period.

At the same time, the once-invincible PBA is fighting to remain the bargaining agent for 19,000 state correctional officers. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters has mounted an aggressive campaign to end the PBA's three-decade reign.

Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford in Tallahassee ordered the privatization project stopped in August, ruling that lawmakers illegally stuck the outsourcing plan in the budget by the use of language known as proviso.

Minutes before the deadline to appeal the ruling came last week, Attorney General Pam Bondi appealed Fulford's decision. She did so not on behalf of the Department of Corrections, the actual defendant in the case, but at the Legislature's request.

"A very strange circumstance," says PBA attorney M. Stephen Turner.

When the losing side appeals, it stays or suspends a lower court decision. So the prison system reopened the bidding process, but said it would not hire a vendor "until the litigation is complete."

That infuriated the PBA, which raced back to Fulford's court, where she smacked down the state in a second ruling issued Saturday morning. A union official, James Baiardi, testified by phone at Friday's hearing that thousands of state employees are in a "panic" over the prospect of not only losing sleep, but losing their jobs and homes.

"Trial courts have leeway to balance the interests of affected persons with the concerns of the state," Fulford wrote in her ruling, which ordered the Department of Corrections to "cease and desist" the request for private-prison proposals.

The state shut the bidding window for a second time, and the prison system said Monday that no decision has been reached on whether to appeal Fulford's latest order.

The privatization plan was projected to save taxpayers $22 million this fiscal year because private firms would be required to operate at a 7 percent discount.

It's November. The fiscal year is almost half over. The union vows to keep up the fight, even as it works to remain the voice of Florida's correctional officers.

PBA director Matt Puckett says rank-and-file workers fault the union for not doing enough to get them more money. State employees haven't had an across-the-board raise in five years.

Next week, the Public Employees Relations Commission will tally thousands of employee secret ballots. Once again, the PBA is hoping for a victory.

Any guesses as to which side the Legislature is rooting for?

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

Florida private prison fight puts state on defense 11/07/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 7:07pm]
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