State senators decided by two votes last night to kill a massive privatization program designed to reduce state prison costs by seven percent a year. Nine Republicans joined the Democratic minority to kill the bill, which had divided the Senate and called into question the leadership of Senate President Mike Haridopolos.
The privatization scheme called for turning 28 southern Florida institutions over to private contractors, eliminating thousands of jobs and reducing the state prison budget by an estimated seven percent.
Prisons guards and their family members cheered wildly as the 21-to-19 final vote was announced. Walking hallways and testifying at committee hearings, the guards and their union representatives had been fixtures in the state Capitol during the privatization debate.
"We made this about facts," said Santa Rosa Correctional Institution guard Brad Pruitt. "This was not going to save money. It was all about lining the pockets of a handful of people. It was definitely going to cause an issue for public safety for both the officers, the inmates and the general public."
The facts were indeed in dispute. Dissident senators complained there were too many conflicting anecdotes and too many variables in side-by-side cost comparisons of state prisons and private prisons. Many feared the cost of laying off thousands of prison workers would dwarf the seven percent savings they had been told to expect.
Meanwhile, argued Sen. Dennis Jones (R-Seminole) during the final floor debate, public opinion had turned away.
"Right now, it looks like you’re putting public safety an issue that's only worth seven percent," he said.
Jones was one of nine Republicans who joined the Senate's 12 Democrats in a coalition assembled by another Republican, Mike Fasano of New Port Richey. Fasano's rebellion against President Haridopolos had cost him a prison committee chairmanship. But this was Fasano's night.
"A clear message was sent by 21 of the 40 senators," Fasano exulted after the vote. "We don't want to privatize public safety. We don't want to turn over a half billion dollars worth of state-paid, taxpayer-paid facilities to two corporations and let them earn money on the backs of taxpayers. That is bad public policy.."
Using the Republican leadership math, privatizing the prisons would have saved the state more than 16 million dollars a year. Haridopolos, who lost a similar privatization battle in the last legislative session, says he accepts the judgment of the Senate but that $16 million will have to come from somewhere.
"Everyone knows the consequences of it," Haridopolos told reporters. "We're going to have to find 16 and half million dollars somewhere else. And not just for one year, but for many years to come."
The senate president said education and health care are now likely to experience what he called a "disproportionate hit." What happens now remains unclear. Senate leaders say Gov. Rick Scott has the power to privatize the prisons by executive order.
He hasn't said what he'll do. But he may have learned from the senate's experience that there are easier and gentler ways to reduce his prison budget by seven percent.