Prison privatization plan may be crumbling in Florida Senate

South Florida Sentinel.com reports:

TALLAHASSEE — A massive plan to privatize 28 correctional facilities in South Florida appeared to be crumbling Wednesday as opposition to the plan that would cost the region nearly 4,000 jobs rose in the Florida Senate.

The plan – scheduled to be debated on the Senate floor Wednesday – was abruptly yanked off the calendar by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, amid reports that as many as 20 Republicans and Democrats were prepared to kill it. Earlier, Gov. Rick Scott called in two critics in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to change their minds.

Haridopolos also stripped one of the plan’s principal critics – Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey – of his chairmanship of the budget committee that oversees prisons, saying he had “he had “lost confidence” in Fasano’s ability to help the Senate come up with a budget for the state. Fasano compared him to a “schoolyard bully.”

At the end of the day, the bill was in limbo. “At this point, I’m not ready to bring it up to vote,” Haridopolos told reporters. The House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday morning pulled discussion of a similar plan from its agenda without comment.

The collapse of the plan would be a major political blow to Haridopolos and two of his top lieutenants, Sens. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. They passed the same plan last year as part of the state budget, but it was struck down by a judge who ruled it should have moved as a separate bill.

This year, they simply may not be able to get the votes from their own party. Haridopolos said he wanted to give lawmakers the weekend to think about the proposal. Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, who opposes the legislation, would not give an exact vote count, but characterized it as “very close.”

But in a sign of the chamber’s tensions, a leader of the opponents, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, asked Haridopolos to commit to giving lawmakers at least 24 hours notice before taking up the issue for a vote. Haridopolos agreed.

The measure would have handed over the operations of 28 correctional facilities in South Florida to a private company, something Alexander estimated would save the state up to $45 million. But it also would have cost nearly 4,000 state workers their jobs, and the savings were questioned by several unions representing the prison workers. And many lawmakers said they simply weren’t comfortable with the idea of handing over prisons to a for-profit company.

Scott, who backs the bill, did some arm-twisting of his own, calling Sens. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Steve Oelrich, R-Cross City, into his office Wednesday afternoon. But neither lawmaker seemed swayed.

Dean said the governor made “no threats at all” if he didn’t vote for the bill. “The governor is a professional gentleman, and I respect him,” he said.

Fasano, an outspoken veteran who has tried repeatedly to kill the privatization plan, wasn’t as reserved after Haridopolos stripped him of his chairmanship of the Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee – a move the Senate president insisted had nothing to do with the privatization fight.

Fasano saw it otherwise: “No matter how big the bully in the schoolyard may be, if the loss of a chairmanship is the result of taking a stand for what is right, I wear that loss as a badge of honor,” he said.

The state AFL-CIO issued a statement calling Haridopolos’ action “political payback,” while James Preston of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police called the move “blatant retribution for expressing his opinion and representing his constituents.”

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