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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — As the Department of Corrections confirmed plans Tuesday to privatize 20 work release centers across Florida, a separate proposal to outsource prison inmate health care services was the focus of a legal dispute in a Tallahassee courtroom.
Assistant Attorney General Jonathan Glogau told Circuit Judge Kevin Carroll the department can contract health services even after a budget provision calling for privatization expires at midnight Saturday. He later said prison officials haven't yet decided whether they will do so.
The soon-to-expire provision calls for privatizing health care in three of the state's four correctional districts, excluding the South Florida District. The department, though, included all four districts in its request for proposals.
Glogau told the judge that if the budget provision lapses, so does the court's authority to stop the agency from privatizing the service.
Lawyers for public employee unions and two prison nurses urged Carroll to block the privatization even without the budget provision. They denied it will be a moot issue when the budget expires.
Carroll said he expects to rule by the end of the week.
Meanwhile, Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard said the 327 correctional officers employed at the work release facilities being privatized will be offered other prison jobs. A union leader, though, said that would be a hardship because many of the centers are far from prison facilities.
"That's almost termination by economics," said Jeff Edmiston, coordinator of Teamster Local 2011, which represents correctional officers.
The state will not necessarily save money by privatizing the work release centers, but it will help advance Gov. Rick Scott's goal of creating private sector jobs, Howard said.
She said the department expects to request proposals from private firms by mid-July and complete the transition in the new calendar year. When privatization is complete, only one work release facility — the Sago Palm Re-entry Center in Palm Beach County — would remain under state operation.
Teamster officials said they haven't yet decided what, if anything, they would do to oppose the work release privatization.
"It is irresponsible to give away the only part of the correctional system that makes money for the state," said Ken Wood, acting president of Teamster Local 2011.
Howard pointed out the state already has privatized 13 other work release centers. She and Glogau say existing state law allows for privatization without budget provisions.
Glogau, though, said the Legislative Budget Commission, made up of 14 House and Senate members, first must approve the transfer of funds designated for state salaries and benefits to private contracts.
He cited a state law on the department's functions that calls for buying services whenever possible from other government agencies, nonprofit corporations and "other entities" if they can do it in a "more cost-efficient, cost-effective, or timely" manner.
"This is a risky proposition," Florida Nurses Association lawyer Stephen Turner told Carroll. "Thinking you're just going to be able to hire nurses for less in Podunky, Fla., is not necessarily a valid assumption."
Carroll initially heard arguments on May 29 in the health care case. It's similar to another case challenging the proposed privatization of nearly 30 South Florida prison facilities.
Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford, also in Tallahassee, ruled that the Republican-led Legislature violated the Florida Constitution by using a budget provision instead of passing a stand-alone law. A separate South Florida privatization bill subsequently was filed but it was defeated in the Senate.
A three-judge panel of the 1st District Court of Appeal is set to hear oral argument in the state's appeal of Fulford's ruling on Wednesday in Tallahassee.