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Politics

Haridopolos Defends Prison Privatization Effort

October 6, 2011 - 6:00pm

Senate President Mike Haridopolos is defending the states prison privatization effort as being conducted openly in the sunshine, as a decision is expected soon whether the state will appeal a circuit judges rejection of the jail maintenance plans.

Haridopolos contends the legislative directive was heard by legislative committees before being included in the budget prior to the approval of the fiscal plan.

There have been accusations prison privatization was not done in the Sunshine, Haridopolos said. Since last October, weve been talking about this in every available opportunity.

"This was addressed early and often, and people all saw it coming, both in the House and the Senate."

Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford, in a ruling released Sept. 30, didnt object to the state privatizing prisons, just how the legislation was enacted as part of the budget this past spring.

The Florida Department of Corrections has yet to make a decision on appealing the ruling.

Fulford sided with union attorneys, who argued lawmakers should have put the potential privatization of 29 prisons in South Florida into a separate bill, rather than as a proviso to the budget.

Haridopolos took his stand on the issue Thursday because he said media reports made it appear the proviso was slipped into the budget at the eleventh hour and because of comments from Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that supported the judges ruling.

A judge has now interjected themselves into the legislative process well have to see where that ends up, Haridopolos said.

Anyone implies we stuck this in in the middle of the night is factually inaccurate, he added.

Fasanos spokesman Greg Giordano said the senator stands by his comments.

On this particular issue, however, he respectfully disagrees with the presidents position, Giordano said.

After Fulfords ruling, Fasano issued a release stating, The Florida Legislature should not be making major policy decisions by inserting last-minute proviso language into the budget, thus circumventing the committee process.

Haridopolos argued that the state has been using provisos for a decade to dictate how money allowed in the budget can be spent and he doesnt plan to halt such a practice in the coming session.

In the spring, Fasano had also initially sought an amendment to the state budget against the proviso, but without the votes withdrew the amendment.

In the case of prison privatization, the proviso set a predetermined savings target as the Department of Corrections collected bids from companies seeking to run the jails.

Seeking to shave more than $20 million from prison operation and maintenance costs, the proviso requires the savings to be 7 percent or more to warrant a shift of prison control from public to private management.

My priority is to spend less on prisons and more on health care, Haridopolos said.

Union attorneys claim the budget provision essentially removed the Department of Corrections discretion to decide on privatizing prisons.

In a timeline released by Haridopolos, the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice released a brief on the privatization of prison health-care services in October 2010, which served as a foundation for future discussions of health care privatization within the Department of Corrections."

Prison privatization was brought up in four committee meetings before the proviso was proposed March 30 in the appropriations bill. The Senate initially approved the proviso on April 7 and the version deliberated by the House/Senate Budget Conference Subcommittee was approved May 6.

Corrections Secretary Ken Tucker told lawmakers, while appearing before the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Tuesday, that a decision on the appeal could be made this week.

"We're still evaluating at this point what our options may be. What are the next steps? Where do we go from here? Will an appeal be filed?" he said.

Because of Fulfords ruling, the Department of Corrections has suspended its planned Oct. 4 bid opening from companies seeking to privatize all or some of the 29 state correctional facilities from Manatee and Indian River counties south.

Meanwhile, as Haridopolos was defending the legislation, Department of Corrections Assistant Secretary Dan Ronay resigned Thursday.

Ronay, who had warned that the privatization effort could cripple the agency, wrote Tucker that, "Circumstances are such that I am unable to continue in that role."

Ronay had followed former DOC Secretary Ed Buss from Indiana to Florida. Buss resigned in August.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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