Senate disregards perils of privatization

Published Jan. 25, 2012

Florida Senate leaders claim their end run around a judge's ruling in an effort to quickly privatize South Florida prisons is all about saving money. But they aren't willing to back up their rhetoric with an economic analysis that would be shared with taxpayers. The Republican leaders' arrogant efforts to exempt the Legislature from most of a state law that requires rigorous public vetting of privatization deals would encourage one-sided deals at best and invite corruption at worst. Floridians deserve government in the sunshine.

An embarrassing series of privatization controversies eventually led then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the Republican-led Legislature to require privatization proposals to undergo thorough reviews before deals are signed, including cost-benefit analyses, performance contracting procedures, and in the case of contracts worth $10 million or more, conducting a thorough business case. The rationale is still valid: If private industry can perform a government function more efficiently than government, it should prove it before winning a lucrative contract.

Late last year, the Republican Legislature ran afoul of that law when a Tallahassee trial judge ruled that language in the 2011-12 state budget that ordered the privatization of 30 prisons in South Florida fell far short of such rigorous scrutiny. Among the details lawmakers had never addressed in public discussions, corrections officials found it was going to cost up to $25 million to cover unused vacation and sick leave and other expenses tied to firing thousands of state prison workers. By the time the judge ruled, Gov. Rick Scott had even fired his skeptical Department of Corrections secretary, Edwin Buss, a well-regarded reformer whom the governor had wooed from Indiana.

Now lawmakers, still intent on privatizing South Florida's prisons in 18 counties, still aren't willing to play by the same rules they demand for everyone else in state government. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, Senate Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander and Senate Rules Committee Chairman John Thrasher are trying to ram through legislation (SB 2036 and 2038) that would exempt legislative-initiated privatization plans from serious public scrutiny as well as authorize the prisons' privatization. Their arrogant argument: As the state's policymakers, legislators are assumed to have weighed all the pros and cons before they authorize a privatization deal, so they shouldn't be second-guessed. How very sovereign of them. Even after last year's embarrassing revelations that their private prison scheme was poorly considered, they still are more interested in acting on behalf of special interests than being accountable to the public.

So far, the Florida House has not filed companion legislation, and House Speaker Dean Cannon hasn't signaled whether he will support the measures. He should side with history and the lessons learned by former Gov. Bush and a previous Legislature. If privatization makes sense, prove it with a business case, in public, every time.