One of these days, legislative leaders in Tallahassee may finally understand they cannot do an end run around their own members and the state Constitution. Leon County Circuit Court Judge John Cooper has correctly ruled the Legislature violated the law to privatize prison health care statewide by manipulating the budget process rather than submitting the privatization to a full vote, where it was likely to fail. Only the Legislature, not a small subgroup of powerful lawmakers, can make such substantive spending decisions.
The prison health privatization scheme was tucked into a Legislative Budget Commission plan in September, essentially giving only 14 members of the Legislature the power to authorize a $259 million contract with a Nashville-based company to handle prison health care. Cooper rightly ruled the commission had gone beyond its authority to make only "limited" adjustments to the budget and arbitrarily had created new policy. The privatization of prison health care and the expenditure of $259 million in taxpayer money should be the purview of the full Legislature.
Legislative leaders in Tallahassee should not have been surprised by Cooper's decision. This is the second time a judge has determined lawmakers were attempting budgetary trickery to get around a full and open debate on prisons. Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford previously ruled a prison privatization plan buried in budget language was unconstitutional. Fulford determined the proposal should have been drafted as a separate bill; it was, only to be subsequently rejected in a bipartisan Florida Senate vote.
Neither Cooper's nor Fulford's rulings address the constitutionality of privatizing prison health care or privatizing the management of state prisons. They only focused on the surreptitious attempt by a handful of lawmakers to subvert the legislative process by denying the full House and Senate an opportunity to hold hearings, seek public comment and debate in the sunshine.
The state plans to appeal, of course. The Scott administration complains that blocking the statewide privatization of prison health care and forcing the state to keep providing that care will cost the state $90 million. Too bad. The powerful few who run the Legislature ought to have more respect for their colleagues and the Constitution.