TALLAHASSEE, Fla.(AP) _ Florida is moving ahead with a plan to privatize nearly 3,000 jobs in the state's prisons despite a promise by one of the state's main unions to ask a court to block the move.
A legislative panel on Wednesday approved a proposal by the administration of Gov. Rick Scott to spend nearly $58 million in order to privatize prison health care operations by January.
The issue divided the panel with Democrats questioning the record of the private companies and whether the state's Legislative Budget Commission could legally approve the move instead of the entire Legislature. The Florida Senate earlier this year narrowly defeated a proposal to privatize prisons in South Florida.
“I think this is an overreach,'' said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Westonn.
But Republican legislators and lawyers with the Florida Department of Corrections insisted that the state can move ahead with the privatization plan.
Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales and chairman of the Legislative Budget Commission, insisted it was “totally within the authority'' of the panel to make such a major decision. He said the commission acted on the request at this time because Scott asked them to do it now.
But Alexander also said that he agreed to support it because the state is projected to save money by using two private companies to offer health care services to nearly 100,000 inmates.
“I think it's an opportunity to provide more efficient and effective services to those inmates and save money,'' Alexander said.
Top officials at Florida's prison agency told legislators that the savings would be achieved by a number of ways, including the likelihood that those working for the private companies would not receive the same level of benefits as state workers.
An agency official also said that he expected that about 98 percent of those now working for the state would be offered jobs by the private companies.
But the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees – which represents non-professional employees providing health care services – said they would quickly go into court to block the privatization from going ahead.
The decision on Wednesday is just the latest in battles over the privatization of prison health care services.
State legislators back in 2011 had previously approved the privatization effort but they tucked it into the overall state budget instead of passing a stand-alone piece of legislation authorizing it. That move sparked a court fight, but a judge this summer declared the case over because the outsourcing provision had expired at the end of the June.
The department already has selected two companies to handle health care services. The state picked Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources for the southern part of the state and Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., for other regions.