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Legislative roundup: Proposed prison cuts spark protests

TALLAHASSEE — The potential juxtaposition that Florida will build more prison beds next year but cut correctional and probation officer jobs and eliminate inmate drug abuse programs is touching off a wave of opposition, including from the governor's office.

The House and Senate this week start negotiating the final 2008-09 budget. The House proposes spending $418-million on prison construction next year but eliminating $31-million being spent on substance abuse treatment in prisons. The Senate would keep substance abuse treatment spending at current levels for one more year.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, joined by the state's prisons chief, rallied outside the state Capitol on Tuesday to decry the cuts. The scene included uniformed officers holding signs saying "Corrections cuts = risk to public safety."

Meanwhile, other advocates are trying to sway lawmakers with financial spreadsheets, using the state's own prisons data to suggest spending less on prisoner drug abuse treatment almost certainly ensures more demand for prison beds in the future.

"These are good programs. They serve the public. It's a good business decision and a wise investment," said Mark Fontaine, executive director of the Florida Alcohol & Drug Abuse Association. "A lot of people are talking about the need for these services."

Citing Department of Corrections data, Fontaine is telling lawmakers that it costs five times as much money a year to keep an inmate behind bars as it does to rehabilitate him in a community residential treatment program.

Gov. Charlie Crist made the same argument in his budget proposal to legislators, claiming that a $29-million increase in spending for substance abuse treatment would reduce the need for new prison bed construction by about $300-million.

But lawmakers, facing a $3.2-billion drop in state revenue and no desire to raise taxes, say the state must make cuts and still serve a growing prison population.

The Legislature's budget plans take aim at the prison system in another way, by eliminating hundreds of jobs of probation officers and correctional officers.

The union representing the state's correctional officers, the PBA, vowed retribution on legislators who carry out plans to erase hundreds of positions, and noted that they tout their support for public safety when they run for office.

"Today is the day when they've got to start walking the walk," the PBA's John Rivera said. "Because we will remind them the next time that they run for office ... If they forget us, I promise you we will forget them."

The only legislator who appeared at the PBA's rally was Sen. Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat.

Corrections Secretary Walt McNeil attended the rally and urged PBA members to "turn up the heat" on legislators. McNeil told reporters the House's proposed cut in drug abuse treatment was especially troubling.

"That's a fight that maybe we've lost for this year, but we will continue to push forward with that agenda," McNeil said.

House committee passes two tax bills

Republicans in the Florida House can't get enough property tax cuts.

An important committee on Tuesday passed two sweeping measures that would ask voters to cap all government revenue by population and inflation (HJR 7125) and limit taxes on any property to 1.35 percent of taxable value (HJR 949).

"Taxes have not yet dropped like a rock, and this bill helps it get there," Rep. Trey Traviesa of Tampa said of the 1.35 percent cap.

But it may be all for show. While similar bills exist in the Senate, Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, has said he does not intend to rehash last year's divisive property tax debate, which resulted in a local government rollback and Amendment 1.

Without a Senate partner, the House plans die. But Republicans may still use Democratic opposition in election mailers.

Tighter petition rules get House panel okay

Paid petition gatherers would have to undergo extensive criminal background checks under a bill that moved closer to passage in the House on Tuesday.

HB 503, sponsored by Republican Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary and approved by a House committee Tuesday, would also reduce the time petition gatherers have to make the ballot to two years from four. Democrats decried it as a cynical attempt to stop citizen petitions. There is a bill in the Senate but it does not include as many restrictions.

Abortion ultrasound bill gets key approval

Get ready for an emotional abortion debate on the Senate floor.

A final Senate committee voted 3-2 along party lines Tuesday to approve a controversial bill (SB2400) requiring women seeking an abortion in their first trimester to have an ultrasound.

South Florida Democrat Sens. Nan Rich and Frederica Wilson voted against the proposal, which passed the full House already.

Women in their second and third trimesters already must have an ultrasound, but those late-term abortions account for a small fraction of the 95,000 abortions performed annually in Florida.

The proposed law, sponsored by Republican Sen. Dan Webster of Winter Garden, would require the doctor to explain the images to them, though a woman can waive that in writing. There is also a waiver for victims of incest, rape and other abuses, though the law would require they document their case — a requirement victims rights advocates oppose.

By Steve Bousquet, Alex Leary and Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler

Legislative roundup: Proposed prison cuts spark protests 04/15/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 20, 2008 10:24am]
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