rick_scott_web_38.jpgTALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida prisons are saving money by getting better deals on paper towels, toilet paper, prescription drugs and bar soap while inmates are wearing cheaper shoes, all in response to a budget deficit that's ballooned to $95.2 million.

Department of Corrections officials told a legislative panel on Wednesday that such internal cost-cutting steps, though, won't be enough to reduce the deficit to zero when the current budget year ends on June 30.

Gov. Rick Scott is asking the Legislature to appropriate $74.8 million to cover most of the deficit. That would leave the department responsible for eliminating the remaining $20.4 million through such actions as trading traditional canvas shoes for cheaper, longer-lasting plastic Crocs, buying cheaper asthma inhalers and cutting back on travel.

The department started the budget year with a $36.1 million deficit carry over from 2011-12 and it peaked at $104 million last month, said Corrections Secretary Mike Crews.

“It's kind of like being in that sand pit, and every shovel you throw out, there's three falling back in on you,'' Crews told the House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee.

Factors contributing to the deficit include savings that the state had anticipated by privatizing inmate health care statewide and entire prisons in South Florida, but courts have blocked those efforts.

The privatization of health care in nine South Florida prisons, though, has survived a legal challenge from public employee unions. Crews said the transition is scheduled to take place next month. A judge's ruling against the privatization elsewhere is being appealed.

Scott's proposal includes $10.9 million to restore funds the state expected to save from privatizing nearly 30 entire facilities in South Florida and similarly $14.1 to restore unrealized health care savings.

The biggest part of his plan _ $41.5 million _ is for the higher cost of temporarily contracting with private providers because doctors, nurses and other prison health care workers are quitting in droves rather than waiting to be laid off when their jobs are outsourced.

The department had 509 vacancies when the budget year began July 1, and it has since grown to 673, said budget and financial management director Mark Tallent.

Scott and other Republicans have touted privatization as a way to cut costs, but Tallent said the department is saving by canceling private pest control contracts. The prisons are saving on the cost of providing security for those contractors by doing pest control in-house, Tallent said.

Several Democrats questioned the penchant for outsourcing. Beside health care services, Florida has seven prisons that are entirely operated by private companies.

“How are they saving money?'' said Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. “Is there something we can learn from them or is it just their employee salaries are less, their benefit packages are less, or are they doing something better?''

Officials were unable to answer his question, but Tallent said the state's auditor general must certify savings of at least 7 percent on each contract.

Finally, Scott's proposal would allocate $8.3 million to cover deficits resulting from underestimating the prison population by 880 inmates.

Other factors that have contributed to the deficit include underestimating the employees needed to staff the prisons and an insufficient appropriation last year for maintaining closed facilities.

The deficit-reduction proposals won praise from Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights.

“They sew their own uniforms, they grow much of their own food,'' Van Zant said. “We as legislators need to absolutely support their sparse budget and provide the requested replenishment of their budget to allow them to complete their goal of ending at least this fiscal year at zero.''

The department's plan to shift $977,465 budgeted for education and other inmate programs to its deficit reduction efforts, though, drew opposition from Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg.

“I don't think we need to transfer that to anywhere,'' Rouson said. “I think we need to enhance that figure.''

Crews himself recently cited education as a key factor in preventing inmates from returning to crime after they are released. A falling recidivism rate has saved the state millions.

Scott's recommendations for the next budget year include spending $21.2 million of those savings on bonuses for corrections workers _ $1,000 for guards and others who have direct contact with inmates and $500 for other employees.