TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ With its main sponsor saying he's confident of millions of dollars in savings every year, a Senate committee Monday cleared two bills allowing for the privatization of prisons in South Florida.
The rules committee approved the bills (SB 2036 and SB 2038) on party-line votes after more than three hours of debate and public comment.
Dozens of people spoke against the bills, telling senators privatization would put state employees out of work and will reduce public safety.
Committee vice-chair JD Alexander, careful to use the word “competition'' instead of privatization, said he expects $22-45 million a year in savings.
“From my standpoint, competition makes things improve,'' the Lake Wales Republican said, later adding, “We have to balance the greater good.''
That came as cold comfort to Amanda Abers. She said she moved from Minnesota a year ago to work as a corrections officer at Vero Beach's Indian River Correctional Institution. That facility is slated for closure.
“I'm going to have to move out of the state to survive,'' she told the committee. “I want you guys to think about that. You're putting me out on the street along with close to 200 other people, plus their spouses, their kids.''
Last year, the Legislature passed a South Florida prison-privatization plan but the state was sued by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that formerly represented corrections officers. The Teamsters now represent those employees.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford of Tallahassee eventually ruled that the state's plan is unconstitutional because it was approved as part of the annual budget and not as a stand-alone law. Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing Fulford's decision.
Separately, the Department of Corrections announced this month that it was shutting down seven other state prisons and four work camps, all of which employ nearly 1,300 people, because of a decreasing prison population.
Most of those opposed to the bills were corrections officers or their representatives.
They brought up what Sen. Don Gaetz later derided as a “parade of horribles'': Private prison guards don't have to be trained and certified like state corrections officers; they won't assist when a prisoner escapes; and youthful offenders will be mixed with adults and won't get the education they need.
Corrections officers like Sgt. Glynn Reeder, who said he's worked at Florida State Prison for “22 years and 10 months,'' suggested to senators that privatization was the wrong fix to the state's budget ills.
“How many people are you willing to put on unemployment?'' he said, referring to corrections officers and others who'll likely lose their jobs. Privatization will affect 29 prison facilities.
The committee voted for the two bills by a vote of 10-4 and 9-5.
Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican, voted against both bills. Sen. Gary Siplin, a Democrat from Orlando, switched his vote to “no'' on SB 2036, which allows an agency to not have to report its privatization of a program or service until after the contract is signed.
One small triumph for open government advocates: SB 2036 now requires agencies to complete a financial analysis for any proposed outsourcing costing more than $10 million, and that analysis must be open to public inspection.
Sen. Larcenia Bullard, a Democrat from Miami, opposed the bills: “What are we about to do? We're moving too fast … without having the discussion we should have.''
Gaetz then rebutted her, and most of the bills' other opponents, by saying the bills have already been vetted multiple times and there was no evidence the bills would produce the woes critics claim.
“To earn my vote against these proposals, there will have to be evidence provided, not anecdotal comments,'' said Gaetz, a Niceville Republican. He then voted for both.
Committee chair John Thrasher said the bills next will head to the budget committee.
*Pictured above is state Sen. Larcenia Bullard.