Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Prison privatization dies in Senate 21-19

TALLAHASSEE — A massive expansion of private prisons in Florida collapsed in the Senate Tuesday as nine Republicans joined a dozen Democrats in handing a setback to Senate leaders and a victory to state workers.

As a result, the state will not undertake what would have been the single greatest expansion of prison privatization in U.S. history, affecting 27 prisons and work camps in 18 counties and displacing more than 3,500 correctional officers.

Senate leaders immediately said they would have to cut education and health care programs by $16.5 million, the amount supporters had said privatization would save in the first year.

The 21-19 Senate vote reinforced the chamber's long-standing reputation for independence, as it has shown over the years on many issues, from abortion rights to immigration to the Terri Schiavo case.

Tuesday's vote was a triumph for a rebellious group of Republicans who rejected supporters' arguments that for-profit prisons would save tax dollars and increase efficiency. All 12 Democrats also voted no, putting the minority party in the unaccustomed role of being on the winning side.

Leading the opposition was a trio of local senators: Paula Dockery of Lakeland, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

Six others also defected from the GOP leadership to sink privatization for the second straight year. A similar plan, written into the budget in the 2011 session, was declared unconstitutional by a state judge; the state is appealing that ruling.

Senators debated privatization for nearly three hours, and opponents' floor speeches often showed more passion. Rather than talk about numbers, they talked about people, such as the treatment of correctional officers, whose starting salary is $34,000 a year and who have not received an across-the-board pay raise for the past six years.

"What's wrong with state employees?" said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "We should be taking care of them, rather than kicking them under the bus."

Prison guards displaced by privatization could have "bumped" less experienced officers from their jobs upstate. But, Jones said, with the current housing crisis, many are trapped in their homes and couldn't sell them if they wanted.

Across the Capitol in the House, one key leader said the vote ends discussion of privatization for the year. "I guess that's one less thing that we will be dealing with this session," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who's in line to be House speaker next fall.

The Senate's leading privatization supporter, Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, described his work as budget chairman and the frustration of dealing with a hidebound Department of Corrections that is unwilling to modernize.

Alexander said the agency, for instance, has dragged its feet in switching from paper time cards to electronic time clocks for employees.

"We have consistently over my 14 years failed to make systemic change in the basic operating structure of prisons," Alexander said.

Opposition from two GOP senators proved to be pivotal: Charlie Dean of Inverness and Steve Oelrich of Gainesville, both conservative former sheriffs who ran county jails. Both men resisted personal lobbying by Gov. Rick Scott and said it was wrong to privatize public safety in an entire region of the state.

"I'm scared about the whole idea of private companies being responsible for taking away someone's freedom and keeping them there," Oelrich said.

Senators opposing the privatization plan cited a letter from Jim McDonough, who ran Florida prisons under former Gov. Jeb Bush after a major scandal. McDonough urged a no vote on the grounds that the projected savings were unreliable.

For weeks, labor unions rallied opposition to privatization. They included the Teamsters, who now represent correctional officers, the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and the Florida Education Association.

Explaining a rare defeat for the Senate GOP leadership, Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a long-time nemesis of organized labor, said: "The unions have a strong presence here and that was shown today again. A lot of members relate to that."

A lobbyist for private prison operator GEO Group, Jim Eaton, conceded that the issue is dead in the Legislature for now, but he said Scott can implement privatization on his own because the budget of 2010-11 included money to outsource some South Florida prisons. "He has the authority to do it if he wants to," Eaton said.

Scott declined to say whether he would expand prison privatization on his own.

"What I'm focused on is to make sure the right thing happens," the governor said. "No one sits here and says, 'Gosh, every service that citizens of the state want has to be paid with their tax dollars and has to be (done) by someone who works for the state.' They want the most efficient, the most effective way of doing it."

The state is separately privatizing all medical, dental, mental health and pharmaceutical services for all 100,000 inmates statewide.

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Tia Mitchell and Katie Sanders contributed to this report.

“You know, I’m not a big government guy. But government should be in charge of the custody, care and control of inmates,” Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican and retired sheriff, said during debate on the bill Tuesday. “That’s government’s responsi­bility.”

Associated Press

“You know, I’m not a big government guy. But government should be in charge of the custody, care and control of inmates,” Sen. Steve Oelrich, a Gainesville Republican and retired sheriff, said during debate on the bill Tuesday. “That’s government’s responsi­bility.”

.Fast Facts

How they voted

Here's how members of the Florida Senate voted Tuesday on a bill (SB 2038) to privatize South Florida prisons. The bill failed on a 21-19 vote.

Yes (19): JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales; Thad Altman, R-Melbourne; Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Wellington; Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton; Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale; Nancy Detert, R-Venice; Anitere Flores, R-Miami; Don Gaetz, R-Niceville; Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah; Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando; Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island; Alan Hays, R-Umatilla; Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach; Joe Negron, R-Stuart; Jim Norman, R-Tampa; Garrett Richter, R-Naples; David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs; John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine; Steve Wise, R-Jacksonville.

NO (21): Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens; Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami; Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami; Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Greg Evers, R-Baker; Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville; Dennis Jones, R-Seminole; Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa; Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater; Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura; Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee; Steve Oelrich, D-Alachua; Nan Rich, D-Weston; Jeremy Ring, D-Margate; Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach; Gary Siplin, D-Orlando; Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale; Eleanor Sobel, D-Hollywood; Ronda Storms, R-Valrico.

Prison privatization dies in Senate 21-19 02/14/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 15, 2012 9:13am]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. The eclipse will be okay in Tampa Bay. It will be really good other places.

    Events

    Here's what Tampa Bay residents making special vacations into the path of Monday's solar eclipse could experience.

    Twin Falls High School science teachers Ashley Moretti, left, and Candace Wright, right, use their eclipse shades to look at the sun as they pose for a portrait at Twin Falls High School in Twin Falls, Idaho. The district bought 11,000 pairs of solar glasses, enough for every student and staff member to view the solar eclipse Aug. 21

(Pat Sutphin/The Times-News via AP)
  2. Brandon family's pit bulls save small children from poisonous coppertail and get bitten instead

    Public Safety

    Two young children are safe after a Brandon family's two pit bulls saved them from a venomous copperhead.

    Slayer is recovering after being bitten and injected by a poisonous copperhead on Sunday in Brandon. Slayer and another pit bull, Paco, were protecting the family's two small children, who were playing in the yard when the snake appeared. [Photo from Video]
  3. Steven Souza's two passions collide in charity fantasy football event

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Steven Souza knows a thing or two about football.

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston gets a hug from right fielder Steven Souza Jr. (20) after throwing the ceremonial first pitch of the game between the Texas Rangers and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Sunday, July 23, 2017.
  4. Housing starts fall in July

    Real Estate

    WASHINGTON — The Commerce Department said Wednesday that housing starts fell 4.8 percent in July to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.16 million. Groundbreakings for multi-family buildings such as apartments slumped 17.1 percent, while single-family house construction slipped 0.5 percent.

    On Wednesday, the Commerce Department reported on U.S. home construction in July. 
[AP file photo]
  5. Florida man has some of Princess Di's wedding cake, plus 13,000 other royal items (w/photos)

    Human Interest

    John Hoatson recalls the day it all began with perfect clarity.

    John Hoatson poses with a photo taken in 2006 when he met Sarah "Fergie"; Ferguson, the Duchess of York, for tea at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in California.