Senator booted off budget panel over prison privatization
Published: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:21 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 at 11:21 p.m.
TALLAHASSEE — Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos on Wednesday removed a veteran GOP legislator from a budget panel after he fought a plan to privatize prisons, saying he had lost confidence in the lawmaker’s willingness to cut government costs.
Haridopolos said he was stripping Sen. Mike Fasano of his chairmanship of the Senate budget subcommittee that oversees spending on prisons and the courts. He was also removed from the main budget committee.
“I had lost confidence in him to build (on) the mission” of cutting the cost of government, Haridopolos told reporters. “It was a very difficult decision, but I just felt he was not rowing in the same direction. He was not ready to make the tough choices. He couldn’t handle the responsibility.”
The move, however, could upset the perceived collegial working atmosphere of the Senate at a time that it is dealing with a billion-dollar budget gap and the once-a-decade job of redistricting.
The Florida Education Association and Florida AFL-CIO, which represents many public workers, were swift in firing off press releases criticizing the move as “political payback” for privatization interests.
But Fasano, of New Port Richey, said he’d “wear the loss as a badge of honor” for speaking up “for the little guy.”
Nearly 4,000 prison employees’ jobs in 26 facilities could be affected. Lawmakers in support of privatization say it could save at least $16.5 million a year. They’re looking to plug a more than one billion dollar hole in this year’s state budget.
Haridopolos declined to bring up the privatization bill (SB 2038) for debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday after cutting off discussion the day before. He said he wanted to give senators the weekend to continue to think about their position.
Fasano translated the move: “They don’t have the votes. That was a given” when Haridopolos refused to call up the bill for debate, he said.
“I’ve been in the process for 17 years,” Fasano said. “If the leadership, with all great respect, had the votes to pass privatization, or at the minimum, stop my amendments, they would have brought the bill up.”
Fasano pushed a raft of amendments earlier this week. One would have ensured state corrections officers have first shot at jobs in privatized prisons at the same salary and benefits. Another would have killed privatization outright in favor of more legislative study.
Fasano noted that a House companion measure on prison privatization was pulled off a committee agenda Wednesday.
“There’s a lot of concern about the legislation,” he said. “Privatizing nearly half the state (prisons) is an unprecedented move, not just in Florida, but nationally.”
Rep. Denise Grimsley, the House budget chief, said her chamber isn’t retreating from its support of privatization. She said her panel would not have had enough time to take the public testimony and hear debate the legislation would have sparked.
At least one senator — Republican Charlie Dean of Inverness — said he was called into Gov. Rick Scott’s office in an apparent attempt to sway his vote. Haridopolos said he wasn’t aware of any arm-twisting, though Scott has voiced his support of privatization.
“If the governor believes in the policy and I’ve been unsuccessful in securing a vote, I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried to use his influence,” Haridopolos said.
Scott’s press secretary Lane Wright didn’t confirm or deny the talks: “The governor meets with many legislators and talks about various issues with them.”
The Legislature passed a South Florida prison-privatization plan last year, but the union that represented corrections officers at the time sued over it.
A judge decided that prison privatization was unconstitutional because it was part of the annual budget and not passed as a separate law. Attorney General Pam Bondi is appealing the judge’s decision. This year’s legislation was intended to work around the judge’s ruling.
Haridopolos named Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff as the new chair of the Senate budget subcommittee on criminal and civil justice appropriation.
Replacing Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, as chair of the Senate committee on finance and tax is Sen. Jim Norman, a Tampa Republican. He will also be on the main budget committee.
Haridopolos said he feels for those who jobs might be affected by privatization — and for the lawmakers who represent them.
“Any time you look into the eyes of someone who’s lost a job, how do you not feel sympathetic?” he said.