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Politics

Rick Scott, Mike Haridopolos Critical of Judge's Prison Ruling

September 29, 2011 - 6:00pm

Floridas top lawmakers disagree with a circuit judges ruling that the Legislature violated the state Constitution by placing prison privatization plans in the state budget.

Meanwhile, an appeal is being discussed, but no action has been taken.

The Department of Corrections, which would have to make the appeal, has suspended Tuesdays planned bid opening from companies seeking to privatize all or some of the 29 state correctional facilities from Manatee and Indian River counties south.

Those bid openings will not be happening next Tuesday, said Gretl Plessinger. Were working with the judges order now.

Leon County Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford in her ruling released Friday didnt object to the state privatizing prisons, just how the legislation was enacted this past spring.

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

If it is the will of the Legislature to itself initiate privatization of Florida prisons, as opposed to DOC, the Legislature must do so by general law, rather than using the hidden recesses of the General Appropriations Act, Fulford wrote in her order.

The proviso required the Department of Corrections to accept bids from companies seeking to privatize state prisons, making the change from public to private if the contracts would save at least 7 percent from the current prison costs.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos contends the provision was "vetted" in both the House and Senate.

"Proviso language privatizing the prisons in DOC Region 4 was included in the appropriation bill passed by the Budget Committee and Senate, before the appropriation conference committee process," Haridopolos stated in a release. "Later, that proviso language was amended during the normal conference process completely in the sunshine. It was not, as some reports have indicated, added in at the eleventh hour of the legislative session.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Scott said the ruling is being evaluated.

We disagree with the ruling and were currently evaluating our options before moving forward, said Deputy Press Secretary Jackie Schutz.

Attorneys for the correctional officers union, which include the Police Benevolent Association, argued the budget proviso essentially removed the Department of Corrections discretion to decide on privatizing prisons.

Attorney Stephen Turner, representing the union, said lawmakers failed to justify the privatization effort or provide proof that the outsourcing would save money while maintaining the necessary level of service and public safety.

Attorney Jon Glogau, representing the state Department of Corrections, said in court Thursday that lawmakers had every right to explore the privatization process because the state Constitution requires the lawmaking body to create laws and set the budget.

He added that the lawmakers are not bound to fund items that have been previously submitted only through budget requests, as the union contends.

Fulford is getting some support for her ruling from among legislators.

I applaud the judge for her wise decision to declare the attempt at privatizing these prisons unconstitutional, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, stated in a release.

The Florida Legislature should not be making major policy decisions by inserting last-minute proviso language into the budget, thus circumventing the committee process, Fasano continued. An issue as important as prison privatization should have been given the chance for thoughtful debate in the substantive committees that oversee this issue.

State Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg, called it inappropriate for legislative leaders to tuck the issue into the budget.

Privatizing prisons in Florida, and transferring state jobs to private companies, would be a major undertaking that, if considered at all, deserves sharp scrutiny by the Legislature and in the public eye, Rouson, the ranking Democrat on the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee, stated in a release. While I do not believe privatization is inherently wrong, there should be savings to the taxpayer and no compromise of public safety. Thus, full and fair debate is necessary.

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

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