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Prison budget cuts lead to Florida Senate drama

Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was so angered by the proposed reductions that he made a motion to vote down the entire criminal justice budget proposal.
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility. 
photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections
Walkway. Interior photos of Blackwater River Correctional Facility. photo credit: Florida Department of Corrections [ Florida Department of Corrections ]
Published Mar. 25, 2021|Updated Mar. 25, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — In a highly unusual mid-session budget fight, two key lawmakers on Wednesday openly feuded with Senate leadership and tried to derail the first draft of the chamber’s criminal justice budget.

The dispute largely centered on $140 million in proposed budget cuts to the Department of Corrections that contemplates the closure of four state-run prisons, a plan that is devoid of specifics and had not been previously discussed by lawmakers.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, was so angered by the proposed reductions that he made a motion to vote down the entire criminal justice budget proposal.

“I can’t let this go without objecting,” Brandes said. “If it was a long-term plan, maybe. But this cuts without a plan. There is no plan here. This says we are going to make the cuts and DOC, you make the plan.”

The effort was backed by Senate Criminal Justice Chairman Jason Pizzo, D-North Miami Beach, and Sen. Victor Torres, D-Kissimmee. But it failed by one vote, and the budget cleared the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Shortly after the meeting’s fireworks, Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, sent out a statement, saying the Senate has a “constitutional responsibility to pass a balanced budget in good times, and in difficult times.”

“Every Senate Appropriations Subcommittee made cuts, which was a difficult and challenging task for everyone involved,” Simpson said. “I am thankful to Chair Perry for his leadership and to senators on the committee who voted to support this responsible plan.”

‘You know how this process works’

Moving forward, tension will likely loom over the Senate’s budget negotiations. Brandes and Pizzo, in objecting to the spending plan, pointed the finger at Senate leadership for allowing such cuts to even be considered.

“Where did this specific language come from? It doesn’t seem like it came from the chair,” Brandes told the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Keith Perry, R-Gainesville. “Did it come from above the chair?”

“You know how this process works,” Perry said.

Perry later added that the decision was done in “collaboration” with Simpson and Senate Appropriations Chair Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

“I think we are in ongoing negotiations,” Perry tried to explain. “We are rolling this out. This is not the budget I think everybody would like to see.”

The $5.6 billion budget proposal that faced criticism Wednesday is just one portion of the Senate’s overall proposed spending plan. The Senate and the House still have to begin budget negotiations, and the Legislature will not finalize its 2020-21 spending plan until late April.

Still unknown is the impact on the state budget of billions of dollars of federal aid in the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress.

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Marti Harkness, the committee’s staff director, explained that the state’s Department of Corrections and the Department of Juvenile Justice took the biggest cuts because they make up the largest parts of the criminal justice system’s budget.

Specifically, the Senate is proposing $140 million in budget cuts to consolidate the prison system and eliminate 1,500 full-time jobs from the department. Those cuts are meant to mirror the decline in arrests and prison admissions across the state.

But Pizzo worried that the “anemic” budget proposal is based on the current prison population of roughly 79,000 inmates, a number that has significantly declined since the pandemic started a year ago but is expected to tick up once Florida’s court system resumes trials.

Florida Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Canady told lawmakers at the start of the legislative session to brace for an estimated 1.1 million cases pending in court.

“We are looking at an impending waterfall of cases,” Harkness acknowledged on Wednesday. “But what we are looking at is, when are those cases coming? We don’t know yet when we will see that increase.”

Pizzo argued the prison system could be overwhelmed if the Legislature approves cuts that would reduce prison beds and staffing.

“They are pending. They are not going away,” Pizzo said.

A system in ‘crisis’

Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has repeatedly warned state legislators that the state’s prison system is in “crisis,” in large part due to it being dangerously understaffed. In recent years, he has asked the Legislature for millions of dollars to address worker shortages, which lawmakers say contribute to high turnover rates and violence in prison.

“How are we walking into a massive class-action lawsuit?” Pizzo said. “How is this not gross negligence?”

Toward the end of the meeting, Perry tried to reassure his colleagues that the budget proposal before them on Wednesday is just the first step.

“This is not the budget. This is not a finalized issue,” Perry said. “It’s up to us to advocate and understand the issues, and articulate a message to others because everyone is fighting for the same piece of the pie.”

Perry added that while the current budget on the table contemplates the closure of four prisons, he does not believe it will happen.

“I can tell you I already had talks to other people above me, and I don’t believe that we will close down four prisons,” he said. “Those negotiations are still going on and they are being debated on right now.”

Sen. Randolph Bracy, D-Orlando, was the lone Democrat on the committee to not object to the budget on Wednesday. He was the swing vote that could have derailed the budget from clearing the committee.

“I think the president has heard our concerns and we have to work to get it where it needs to be,” Bracy said.

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