TALLAHASSEE — Senate President Mike Haridopolos is under fire from fellow Republicans for his handling of a controversial prison privatization plan.
Haridopolos, who decides which committees vote on which bills, sent two privatization bills to panels headed by loyal members of his inner circle, bypassing two committees that usually handle prison-related issues.
The action is all the more controversial because the same outsourcing plan was nixed by a judge who said it was done too secretly.
"It just really bothers me," said Sen. Greg Evers, who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee that was not assigned the bills. "Why are we not being as open with this as we have been with everything else?"
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, is chairman of the budget panel in charge of prisons, which also won't consider either bill.
"It was handled this way to avoid a battle," Fasano said. "It's an end run."
In his 17 years in the Legislature, he said, he has never seen the Rules Committee assigned to address a major policy change.
At issue is the greatest one-time expansion of prison privatization ever undertaken in the U.S. — a venture blocked by a Florida court last year.
The bills (SB 2036 and SB 2038) would outsource 32 prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties in an effort to save a minimum of $22 million in the first year.
The plan, which was ruled unconstitutional by a state judge last August, could disrupt thousands of state workers.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford nullified the first privatization plan because it was approved in budget language and no bill was ever debated by a single Senate committee.
Haridopolos sent the bills to the obscure Senate Rules Committee, a panel headed by a key member of the Senate leadership, Sen. John Thrasher of St. Augustine, who will hold a four-hour hearing Monday.
Thrasher defended Haridopolos' actions.
"This is not a brand new issue," Thrasher said. "This is an issue we all know about. … For anybody to say this bill will not receive a full hearing is wrong."
Thrasher said it's a "time-honored" principle in the Legislature that a Senate president has sole control over the referencing of bills to committees.
Amid the criticism, Haridopolos on Friday also sent the bills to the 20-member Senate Budget Committee. In a memo to senators Friday, he said he would "proceed in an abundance of caution," and that the issue was "fully vetted" by the 2011 Legislature.
The Budget Committee is chaired by Republican Sen. JD Alexander of Lake Wales, a strong supporter of privatizing prisons. That committee is scheduled to consider the two bills Wednesday.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.