Update: Alexander focuses on cost savings of prison privatization

Tallahassee Democrat writes:

The powerful chairman of the Senate budget committee today estimated that privatizing prisons in South Florida could save taxpayers $22 million to $45 million a year — money that could be used for schools and medical services for the poor.

Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, told the Senate Rules Committee his budget panel is grappling with a $1.4 billion budget shortfall. He said legislators need to save all the money they can this year.

Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said the budget subcommittee on health care is facing an $850 million budget cut. In a friendly exchange with Alexander, Gaetz said there are a lot of ways the Legislature could use money, better than spending tax revenue on prisons.

Alexander said prison privatization is legally required to be 7 percent cheaper than operation of state-run prisons, but that the real cost savings range from 7.5 percent to nearly four times that amount, in different institutions. He said the state has seven well-run privatized prisons.

“We could be looking at a minimum of 10-15 percent savings,” Alexander said of privatizing 29 prisons across an 18-county region of South Florida.

Earlier in the marathon Rules Committee meeting, Alexander backed off language in a prison-privatization bill which would have allowed contracts to move forward without establishing a “business case” or cost-benefit ratio. He added an amendment to a Rules Committee bill on privatization to restore the requirement that — even when the Legislature directs an agency to privatize some services — the affected agency will make a public examination of costs and benefits.

Alexander also denied that private prisons “cherry pick” inmates, taking only the ones most likely for rehabilitation and sticking the state-run prisons with the most dangerous, high-maintenance men and women.

“At the end of the day, most of these people in prison are going to get out and we need to do a good job of it,” Alexander said. “To me, it’s not just price.”

Correctional officers from across the state jammed into the hearing room to testify against privatization of prisons.

Earlier update

Scores of correctional officers, members of the Teamsters Union, are expected to pack the Senate Rules Committee hearing room at 1 p.m. for debate on two bills that would make it easier for the state to contract out for services. One bill (SB 2038) would revive a move to privatize prisons in 18 South Florida counties, which was blocked in court last year, while the other bill (SB 2036) allows state agencies to negotiate a privatization deal without making a “business case” or cost-benefit report until after the contract is executed.

That one applies to all privatization, not just the prison plan.

There are a couple other interesting items on the agenda of the Rules Committee, which usually just sets the Senate agenda.

Besides the privatization bills, the committee has a proposal that would require city and county governing boards to give citizens a “reasonable” opportunity to speak at meetings. It was prompted by court rulings last year that said the state’s “Sunshine law” assures taxpayers the right to attend hearings, but not necessarily to testify on issues.

A subcommittee of the Rules Committee also has a proposal that would forbid former members of the Legislature to take jobs in the State University System, or to go to work for community colleges, while serving in the House or Senate. Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he came up with the bill because he didn’t want faculty members or college administrators serving in the Legislature — voting on budget items that affect their campus employers.

The Rules Committee voted last week to have the privatization bills introduced. The same committee will now hear them today, but the prison-privatization bill is also going to the Senate Budget Committee on Wednesday. That committee is chaired by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who is a major supporter of privatization.

The Teamsters Union last year won a representation election for about 20,000 correctional and probation officers statewide — replacing the Florida Police Benevolent Association.

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