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  1. Florida Politics

Ugly rush by powerful lawmakers to privatize prisons

Published Feb. 5, 2012

Usually, our mistrust of lawmakers is a little fuzzy. Just a vague sense that something's happening, and we're not quite sure what that something is.

That's why this prison privatization saga has arrived at such a perfect time for those Floridians whose paranoia had atrophied.

Behold the hanky-panky!

It's obfuscation. It's secrecy. It's circumvention of laws, vindictive plots and some smelly conflicts of interest. Also hypocrisy. Lots and lots of hypocrisy.

With almost no help from anyone else, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senate budget chief JD Alexander have renewed our faith in deceit.

They have taken what should have been a worthwhile debate about saving money, and somehow made it a cautionary tale about the abuse of power.

A discussion of streamlining the government now looks like a rush to prostitute it.

To recap:

A handful of legislators were so hell-bent on turning state prisons over to private companies they tried to sneak it into the 2011 budget only to be slapped down by a judge.

Undeterred, they tried to change laws in 2012 to make it easier to pass. They rigged Senate committees to squash opposition. They hid $25 million in potential costs to the state. I'm not sure, but they may have even suggested the redemption at Shawshank was due to privatization.

At some point it's worth asking why this issue is so important to them. It's not health care reform. It's not a groundbreaking education initiative.

At its best, prison privatization is about saving money by likely cutting jobs, benefits and pay for some of the lowest-salaried employees in the state.

And that's worth the lawsuits? The party infighting? The bullying, backbiting and bad press?

That's worth people asking how much money private prison companies contributed to candidates and the Republican Party in the last election cycle? (It was somewhere in the $1 million vicinity, according to numbers compiled by the Teamsters.)

You could argue, on some level, that this is about smaller government, which seems to be an idea a lot of people are on board with these days.

But smaller government doesn't happen in a vacuum. There is impact, and there are consequences. Sometimes the trade-off is worth it. Sometimes it isn't.

In this case, a private company would promise to cut the state's expenses for 29 prisons by 7 percent. But, of course, the cuts wouldn't stop there. The company is going to want to turn a profit beyond the state's savings.

Either that means there is currently a ton of waste built into the prison system — and, if so, the state should clean it up itself and reap the savings — or the private company will do some severe cost-cutting.

Now cost-cutting is a swell plan in some areas of government, but I'm not sure it works here. No. 1, a Walmart-style prison system sounds a little reckless. No. 2, reducing jobs and cutting pay in a state with 10 percent unemployment sounds a little heartless.

Besides, some lawmakers have rightfully questioned whether a private company is really going to save the state much, if any, money.

Florida already has a few private prisons, and the handoff has not always been smooth.

A Department of Corrections visit indicated one of the prisons was either understaffed or inept when officials stood outside pushing the buzzer and waving at security cameras for 20 minutes. They eventually left without being acknowledged.

An audit also discovered the state overpaid a couple of the companies by more than $13 million.

And then there is the question of what strategies a private company might employ to make money. A few years ago, a couple of judges in Pennsylvania were convicted of accepting bribes in exchange for sentencing juveniles to prison so the facility could pump up its profits with additional inmates.

None of this, by itself, should preclude Florida from discussing privatization. But that's the problem. Haridopolos doesn't want discussion. He wants obedience.

When Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey started asking common-sense questions, he was knee-capped by Haridopolos.

Thankfully some others, including Jack Latvala of Clearwater, have stepped in the void, and prison privatization has at least been removed from the fast track.

I get the sense that most of us are preoccupied with our own lives. We have neither the time nor the desire to fret about the day-to-day machinations of Tallahassee lobbyists.

So kudos to the Legislature for bungling this so badly. You've made a lot of people care about prisons and politics, and that's no easy feat.

John Romano can be reached at romano@tampabay.com.

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