TALLAHASSEE — The largest privatization venture undertaken by Florida's prison system is in peril, and when the new fiscal year begins Sunday, it might be doomed, in another political victory for organized labor.
The Legislature ordered the Department of Corrections last year to hire private companies to provide health care to all 100,000 inmates at a savings of at least 7 percent in the first year of a five-year contract.
But lawmakers didn't pass a law to require privatization. They mandated it in the fine print of the budget known as proviso, and two unions, for prison nurses and state workers, filed suit, challenging the action as unconstitutional.
The judge has not issued a decision, but the unions and the state were back in court Tuesday.
Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll wanted both sides to answer a question: What happens to a budget proviso when the fiscal year ends and a new budget, without the same language, goes into effect July 1?
Both sides agreed the proviso expires with the budget.
But Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau, representing the prison system, argued that under a different law, the prison system can privatize inmate health care on its own.
Glogau added that as of July 1, the judge can't issue an order blocking privatization because there's nothing to enjoin. "On July 1st, this case goes away," Glogau told the judge.
Attorneys for the Florida Nurses Association and AFSCME, a public employee union, disagreed, and threatened to file another lawsuit if the state persists in privatizing health care in prisons.
"If they want to start a new procurement — if they think they have that authority — we'll be back," said M. Stephen Turner, attorney for the nurses' union.
The privatization venture is hobbled by another problem. The Legislature required that a contract award must be approved by the Legislative Budget Commission, a panel of 14 lawmakers that meets throughout the year to approve budget changes.
The commission will not meet before the fiscal year ends.
As the legal battle grinds on, the Department of Corrections is struggling with an estimated $30 million deficit that now could grow even larger, because lawmakers reduced the prison budget in anticipation that the outsourcing of health care would occur.
The budget is so tight that Department of Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker says he will take $30 million from next year's budget to make the final payroll of the current fiscal year, and he has created an internal task force to look for ways to cut costs.
In April, Tucker tentatively selected two vendors: Corizon Health of Brentwood, Tenn., in the north and central part of the state, and Wexford Health Sources of Pittsburgh in South Florida.
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Tucker declined to say whether he would press ahead with privatization if he loses in court.
"I have not made a decision," Tucker said. "It would be premature."
Steve Bousquet can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.