THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 15, 2011 --
The Senate’s chief budget writer said Tuesday it is worth considering Gov. Rick Scott’s plan to cut the Corrections Department by $82.4 million next year and close two prisons, despite criticism from the chairman of the committee that writes the criminal justice budget.
“I believe we need to look at cost saving efforts across all aspects (of the state budget),” said Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales after hearing a presentation on prison privatization plans Tuesday. “Ruling out any aspect at this point would be inappropriate. If we can save money so we can fund our schools and health care and pay for other critical needs, it’s worth looking at.”
However, Civil and Criminal Justice Budget Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Mike Fasano maintained on Tuesday his criticism of the plan to increase the number of prisoners in private facilities by 15,000.
“Is there any room in private prisons in the state of Florida?” asked Fasano, R-New Port Richey. “There’s no more room. We would have to give them additional money to take 15,000 prisoners when we have approximately 10,000 beds in the system that have already been paid for by taxpayers. I don’t get the rationale behind that.”
Particularly worrisome to Fasano is that Scott’s plan to increase the privatization of prisons calls for eliminating 1,690 jobs, including 619 corrections officers. During Scott’s campaign and transition, he promised to eventually slash $1 billion from the state's prison system, drawing the ire of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, which ran campaign ads saying Scott would release prisoners if elected.
Tuesday, Fasano called Scott’s comments about maximizing the existing private prisons in Florida “deceitful” because he said they are already maxed out.
Alexander’s openness to the proposal followed a presentation from new Corrections Secretary Ed Buss, who spoke to the committee in his second day officially on the job. Buss told the Senate Budget Committee that privatization plans had worked well where he came from.
“Indiana probably has the most aggressive private-public (prison) partnerships in the country,” Buss said. “We saved hundreds of millions of dollars even in a smaller state like Indiana by having public-private partnerships.”
Buss noted that in Indiana, privatized prisons have a specific purpose: housing sex offenders, which he says allows the state to narrowly focus their missions.
Alexander said the new corrections secretary’s experience in Indiana with private prisons could be instructive to lawmakers in Florida grappling with a $3.6 billion budget shortfall this year with no promise of federal stimulus money, unlike the past three years.
“Looking around the nation, I’m not an expert, but there does seem to be some real savings (from privatization),” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “His experience is informative of what we maybe can do here. If we’re short $4 billion, we have a choice. We can cut programs in health and human services, reduce our support for education or we can look at efficiencies in prisons.”