Opponents to prison privatization should hold firm

Published Feb. 2, 2012

It's easy to tell when Florida's leaders in Tallahassee are trying to ram through legislation that would not pass on its merits. First they try to sneak it through. Once caught, they change the rules and play with the financial numbers. Then the governor calls in opponents to twist arms. And finally, legislative leaders punish those who won't get on board.

Republican Senate leaders' strong-arm tactics in their bid to privatize 26 state prisons in South Florida for negligible savings creates suspicion enough. But history also suggests this is just politics as usual in Tallahassee, where moneyed special interests trump the public's interest. Senate opponents — including key Tampa Bay lawmakers — who have managed so far to prevent this plan from coming to a vote should stand firm.

This week's theatrics stem from a decision last year by Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his team to tuck a controversial private prison scheme into the 2011-12 state budget rather than pass a separate law. A judge ultimately overturned that ploy, saying lawmakers had not followed the very state laws they wrote about when a government function could be privatized.

Since being caught, Haridopolos and key lieutenants have gamed the system, circumventing standard Senate procedures to ram the matter through two friendly committees. As the measure headed to the full Senate this week, they turned up the pressure on recalcitrant Republicans. A senator's wife's work lobbying for unions (though not the prison guards) was highlighted. Haridopolos removed Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, from his subcommittee chairmanship overseeing the state prison budget after Fasano voiced concerns about privatization and stood up for the thousands of prison workers who would lose their state jobs.

And Gov. Rick Scott — an apparent late convert to the scheme given he didn't include it in his 2012-13 budget proposal — summoned two former sheriffs, including Citrus County's Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, to his office for unsuccessful one-on-one lobbying.

Supporters claim their plan is a money saver. The private prison operator would have a state contract that would require at least 7 percent savings, meaning a minimum of $16.5 million in annual savings. But that guarantee is the same language Florida has used for decades and it's never been clear whether those savings materialize. The Legislature's research agency, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability, has admitted as much, noting that private prisons house far fewer inmates with special medical needs, which drives down their costs.

The discussion this week on the Senate floor — led largely by Fasano, Dean, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland — showed private prison supporters have failed to fully calculate the costs of the conversion. These include hard costs to pay out sick and vacation leave for up to 2,700 prison guards who will lose their jobs; refunding their 3 percent pension contributions this year; and, for those who can't find work, the cost of unemployment compensation. Also unknown is the significant economic impact on prison-dependent local communities.

Scott, the self-proclaimed jobs governor, seems to be immune to the hypocrisy of eliminating more than 2,000 living-wage jobs for fewer ones that will pay less. The governor also was misleading at best in arguing that the state needs to privatize prisons because the state pension fund is going broke. Florida's pension plan is among the nation's healthiest, and removing thousands of contributors could actually create problems.

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Finally, too little weight has been given to the moral hazard of outsourcing such a huge percentage of the state's criminal punishment and rehabilitation to an enterprise whose financial interest is more in filling beds than preparing inmates to return to society.

Any idea too controversial to withstand the scrutiny of the full legislative process — particularly one that transfers public responsibility to for-profit businesses for questionable savings — is not one worth passing. Fasano's well-grounded opposition cost him his chairmanship but enhanced his reputation as a populist willing to stand up to leadership. Now Latvala, Dockery and their allies should remain firm.