Prison privatization bill lives, for now; Sen. Dockery promises its defeat for Tuesday

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A measure driven by the Senate leadership that would privatize prisons in South Florida narrowly survived a lethal amendment on Monday, but opponents of the change predicted they have the votes to kill the bill on Tuesday, reports David Royse of the News Service of Florida.

“Twenty-twenty,” said Sen. Paula Dockery on her way out of the chamber – a prediction for a tie vote on the floor on Tuesday, which would kill the proposal, one of the top priorities for Senate President Mike Haridopolos and Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander. The bill is seen by backers as a must-have cost saving measure in a tight budget year.

The proposal would require private companies to promise savings of a minimum of 7 percent a year in order to get the contract to run any or all of the nearly 30 facilities currently run by the Department of Corrections in its southern region, an 18-county area across the southern third of the state. Alexander has said for weeks that he thinks the measure would actually save much more, but has repeatedly pointed to the guarantee of savings of 7 percent, or $16.5 million a year.

Opponents, however, have said the savings can’t be achieved and that the proposal would end up being a giveaway to private prison companies that would mean unemployment for thousands of corrections officers who wouldn’t be retained.

The measure was nearly killed Monday, but backers mustered just enough votes against an amendment to keep it alive. The Senate voted 21-19 against the amendment, which would have eliminated the language in the bill requiring the privatization, and instead called for a study on the issue.

The amendment was sponsored by the leading critic of the plan, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a veteran senator who has emerged as a frequent thorn in the side of the leadership of his own party – and recently was stripped of a budget subcommittee chairmanship mainly over the issue of prison privatization. Fasano also predicted the bill would go down on Tuesday.

But it was a senator who voted against Fasano’s amendment who emerged as a key player in the drama – the first close vote on a major, far-reaching issue this year. Sen. Dennis Jones, who supported Haridopolos and Senate leadership in Monday’s vote, confirmed to reporters late Monday that he won’t vote for the bill on Tuesday. Assuming no one else changes, that would give the tie vote backers predicted.

“If everyone is here, the bill should die on a 20-20 vote,” Fasano said about Tuesday’s floor session. The remark about attendance referred to a time change in Tuesday’s vote announced late Monday. The Senate moved the scheduled floor session from Tuesday morning to Tuesday afternoon, leaving opponents of the bill scrambling to change travel plans. Some members had planned to leave town Tuesday afternoon with a light week ahead for all but the members of the Senate Budget Committee.

Haridopolos, meanwhile, wouldn’t predict that the bill would prevail, but said reports of its demise were premature.

“I hope the Senate passes the bill tomorrow, and if they don’t we’ve got to go find the savings elsewhere,” he said.

But he appeared more concerned with debunking accusations that he had tried to get the bill passed using strong-arm techniques. During floor debate on Monday, an opponent of the bill, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, made an almost off-handed remark that annoyed Haridopolos. Latvala referred to the issue that leadership was “breaking arms” over.

Haridopolos’ major point in speaking to reporters following the session was to argue he wasn’t doing anything other than arguing the merits of the bill to try to get it passed.

“The thing that is abundantly clear … I didn’t twist arms,” Haridopolos said. “I’m a consensus builder….We are free will.”

After Fasano’s amendment aimed at derailing the bill failed, the Senate approved a few amendments that appeared to be concessions to opponents, including a couple of major changes that were aimed at easing some of the opponents’ biggest concerns.

One amendment, by Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, shifts the responsibility of paying unpaid benefits to laid-off corrections officers, such as unpaid sick leave or vacation they’re owed, to the private companies. Earlier, the bill had limited what the state would have to pay with the rest being left to the private companies, but the amendment removed all the state’s responsibility.

In another major concession, the Senate adopted another Fasano amendment that allows the state to charge private prison operators for all costs of recapturing any prison escapees.

“If we keep this bill around one more week or two we might get unanimous consent on it,” Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, an opponent of the bill, joked.

But Fasano said later that opponents of the bill generally didn’t think the concessions would stay in the legislation.

“They will try to change the bill in the House,” said Fasano. “Private companies will never accept the amendment” putting them on the hook for the cost of escapes.

The privatization issue hasn’t broken totally along traditional party lines, with the ruling GOP split on the question.

In addition to Fasano, Dockery and Latvala, others Republicans who voted for the amendment that called for a study and would have killed the bill were Sens. Charlie Dean, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Greg Evers, Steve Oelrich, and Ronda Storms.

Democrats nearly voted as a caucus for the amendment, with only Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando, voting with backers of privatization.

Dockery, R-Lakeland, was confident of Tuesday’s outcome.

“Our 20 are solid, 100 percent,” she said.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.