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  1. Opinion

Republican senators stand up to defeat a bad idea

Published Feb. 14, 2012

The narrow defeat Tuesday of a rushed and reckless plan to privatize 27 South Florida state prisons was responsible government. Nine Republican state senators — in a welcome break from their bullying leaders — teamed with the Senate's 12 Democrats to deliver a bipartisan defeat of an idea that was driven more by special interest politics than thoughtful policy. Such a sweeping change of questionable benefit that affects a core government mission and so many state workers never should have been so rashly considered.

Tampa Bay senators were at the core of the breakaway Republicans who helped stop this bad idea: Sens. Jack Latvala of Clearwater, Dennis Jones of Seminole, Ronda Storms of Valrico, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey, Paula Dockery of Lakeland and Charlie Dean of Inverness, a former Citrus County sheriff who had seen the pitfalls of a privatized jail.

The plan's chief architect, Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, claimed he was trying to save money to pay for other key state programs and was unconvinced the Department of Corrections is efficient and effective. Among Alexander's particular complaints: The department has not implemented a high-tech time clock system for employees to ensure paychecks aren't being padded.

The prison system does need more accountability. For decades, state leaders have allowed the system's leaders and unions to operate with too little transparency even as Republican lawmakers in the boom years gave the politically powerful corrections officers better pension benefits.

That sentiment turned noticeably after the union backed Gov. Rick Scott's Democratic opponent in the 2010 election. Since then, private prison companies' overtures to run more prisons have been embraced by Senate leadership, which claimed the deal would save the state at least 7 percent, the contractual obligation at seven existing private prisons. Never mind that the Legislature's own analysts cast doubt on those savings, saying private prisons housed healthier and less violent inmates than the general prison population, making comparisons impossible.

Alexander worked with other leaders to game the system. First, they snuck the language into the 2011-12 state budget. A judge threw out the provision because it did not follow laws written under former Gov. Jeb Bush on vetting whether privatization made sense.

This year, Senate President Mike Haridopolos circumvented standard procedures and rammed the issue through two friendly committees. He stripped Fasano from his subcommittee chairmanship overseeing the state prison budget for opposing the plan.

Never did supporters adequately address the moral hazard of a scheme where a major portion of Florida's public safety obligation was entrusted to an entity whose financial interest was in full prison beds, not rehabilitating inmates.

Ultimately, even strong-arm tactics could not sell this bad idea. All of Tampa Bay's senators, including Democratic Sen. Arthenia Joyner of Tampa, stood up to Senate leadership and for good government Tuesday. Florida is better for it.

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