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State prisons in an 18-county area of South Florida would be turned over to private companies, under the state Senate's proposed budget bill -- if the companies want them.
That's the rub, Sen. Mike Fasano said Tuesday.
The New Port Richey Republican, who chairs a subcommittee overseeing prison spending, said a major prison company has told him that it doesn't intend to bid.
"They told me it's too costly to take over the existing prisons," said Fasano, who is now locked in a high-states dispute over the issue with Budget Committee Chairman JD Alexander. The budget proposal awaits final approval in Alexander's committee.
Fasano is philosophically opposed to privatizing public safety services but said he's also worried companies will "cherry pick" the best and newest prisons and leave older ones that cost more to maintain and operate in the public sector.
Fasano's panel proposed a prison budget without the privatization element, but Alexander unilaterally added it to the proposed $69.8 billion spending bill as a cost-cutting measure before it was published Monday.
"Certainly it's saving substantial sums of money and in many cases is very successful, other cases less so," Alexander said. "Private folks have shown the ability to adapt better in some situations, sometimes not."
Six Florida prisons are currently operated by three private companies.
"I don't believe that private is always better than public," Alexander said, but he added that having both would provide a good measuring stick. He expects to cut spending by at least 7 percent at each prison that is privatized.
Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said he chose South Florida because it has more large population centers that can better handle disruptions in employment. Prisons in rural areas often are the major employer in their communities.
The dispute between Fasano and Alexander has become personal.
Fasano accused Alexander of being "disrespectful" to every member of his subcommittee by putting the measure in the budget bill without submitting it to the panel.
Alexander said Fasano has a closed mind on privatization and has been co-opted by the Police Benevolent Association, which represents prison guards. He also noted the union even has named an award after Fasano.
"Clearly he is aligned with that special interest," Alexander said.
"If I have a bias towards the front line officers I'm guilty as charged," Fasano responded in a separate interview.
Fasano said he will try to get the privatization provision pulled out of the appropriations bill when the Budget Committee considers it Thursday, but it'll be difficult to oppose the chairman.
"Whether I have the votes or not I don't know," Fasano said. "I have to at least stay consistent with my beliefs."
The prison privatization plan isn't part of a proposed House budget that will be heard in committee on Wednesday.
The Senate's tentative budget is about $3.3 billion bigger than the House's $66.5 billion proposal, but some of that gap is due to differences in bookkeeping.
For instance, the Senate's bill includes $453 million for local court clerks that's not in the House version or Gov. Rick Scott's $65.9 billion budget recommendation. Alexander said the clerks will still collect and spend that money whether they are in the state budget or not.
"They just do it out of sight and out of mind" if not in the budget, Alexander said, noting the clerks have been in the budget for the last two years.
The Senate also has brought the state's five water management districts into the budget for the first time, adding $1 billion to the total. The Senate plan also would cut property taxes in the districts but not across-the-board as Scott has proposed. Alexander said the tax cuts are based on how much each district has in reserves and can afford to reduce spending.
Consolidating turnpike operations and fully funding the Department of Transportation's work program add about $2.5 billion to the Senate total.
The two chambers are fairly close in public school spending reductions but neither would cut as much as Scott, who has proposed reducing per-student spending by 10 percent. The House would spend $6,348.58 per student, a reduction of $463.13, or 6.8 percent. The Senate would cut 6.2 percent, or $40 less than the House.
The House and Senate also differ on job cuts. The Senate plan would eliminate 1,541 positions, many of them vacant, while the House envisions a deeper cut of 5,300 jobs. Scott had proposed slashing 8,645 positions with only about 2,000 of them unfilled.