Rush to Privatization a Danger to Fla. by Paula Dockery

Posted: February 4, 2012 in News and politics

In their quest to privatize state prisons, leaders of the Florida Senate, knowing they lacked the support of their members, last year pulled a sneaky move.

They slipped “proviso” language into the state budget creating one big condition for spending prison money. You guessed it. The money had to be spent on a privatized prison system.

The ploy didn’t withstand scrutiny, of course. In September, Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford called the sleight-of-hand what it was: unconstitutional, and a clear violation of existing state law.

Fast forward to this session, where the push for prison privatization became more calculated.

It started in the weeks leading up to session, when Senate leadership stacked appropriate committees with members who supported their cause and replaced those who didn’t. Given my opposition to this ill-advised scheme, I was among those stripped of a seat on the Criminal Justice Committee. Fortunately Sen. Mike Fasano, also a critic, remained chair of the appropriations committee for criminal justice, providing some comfort to those who feared the bill would be slammed through.

Then came the Dec. 2 deadline for drafting legislation, which passed without a bill for prison privatization. Next, the Jan. 6 filing deadline, and still no bill.

But it’s good to be king because deadlines don’t seem to apply to those in leadership. And so on Jan. 13 — with the legislative session fully underway — a committee bill to privatize prisons popped up in the Rules Committee.

That’s right. The push for prison privatization didn’t come from the criminal justice committee, which has jurisdiction over the Department of Corrections. Nor did it come from the governmental operations committee, which covers state employees. Nor did it emerge from the criminal justice appropriations committee, which oversees budget decisions for our criminal justice system.

Why the Rules Committee? Chaired by Sen. John Thrasher, this 14-member committee was built to fast-track desired legislation and stall the undesired. Its members include Sens. J.D. Alexander and Don Gaetz, two architects of the prison privatization effort.

At breakneck speed, the committee heard the bill Monday, with people packing the room to express opposition. Speaker after speaker expressed salient points, but the powerful trifecta brushed aside their concerns as anecdotes and “a parade of horribles.” The bill passed, 10-4.

No matter that experts shot holes in the ability to save $22 million without jeopardizing safety. Proponents clung to a blind belief that a private company will save 7 percent. We’ve heard such false promises before.

Meanwhile, because of growing criticism about the process from Republicans and Democrats alike, Senate President Mike Haridopolos agreed to send the bill to one more committee, the Budget Committee, which is chaired by Alexander, who’s still smarting from the judge’s rebuke over last year’s sneaky move.

Generally, when a bill is referred to committee, it can take weeks — if ever — to be heard. But Alexander’s committee is taking up the privatization bill a mere two days later. Expect a similar outcome.

In the past, the Florida Senate sought to maintain the appearance of representative government. But today’s leaders see the process as a pesky means to a pre-determined end.

With so much at stake, including the jobs of 3,800 corrections employees and the public safety of 18 million Floridians, the rush to privatize prisons is not only an affront to the process, but a danger to our citizens.

[ State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, represents District 15. She is chronicling the last year of her final term. Email: pdockery@floridavoices.com. ]


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