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Close vote on prison privatization in Senate

by Dara Kam | January 31st, 2012

The future of a prison privatization plan remains uncertain as GOP senators remain divided even as the chamber prepares to debate the outsourcing of dozens of prisons in an 18-county region in southern Florida.

Supporters of the measure, including Senate President Mike Haridopolos, need at least 21 votes for it to pass. One of the 12 Senate Democrats – Gary Siplin of Orlando – split with the minority caucus who voted to oppose the measure. And another Democrat, Larcenia Bullard, is absent today, if the proposal (SB 2038) gets a vote today.

At least 11 Republicans say they will vote against the plan or have not yet made up their minds as lobbyists for the two largest private prison corporations – Boca Raton-based GEO Group and Nashville-based Corrections Corporation of America – meet with the undecided senators prior to the 1 p.m. session start.

The uncommitted GOP senators say they’re concerned about the real cost savings – estimated by budget chief JD Alexander to be about $22 million to $44 million annually – and the impact on the thousands of prison workers now employed by the state.

“We probably need to have a study and joint meetings where we lay it all out for everybody as to why this is a good thing,” Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said, predicting “a very, very close vote.”

Like Detert, Sen. Ronda Storms wants more time to weigh the proposal.

Sen. Rene Garcia said he’s being inundated with information from both sides but has not yet been convinced, fearing that the impact presented by those for and against the plan may be exaggerated.

“The truth is somewhere in the middle. I’m trying to figure that out,” Garcia, R-Miami, said, adding that the potential savings in prison spending could help boost spending on health care.

Sens. Mike Fasano, Greg Evers, Paula Dockery, and Dennis Jones have publicly opposed the privatization. Those who won’t commit to voting in favor include Detert, Storms, Garcia, Charlie Dean, Thad Altman, Jack Latvala and Miguel Diaz de la Portilla.

Sen. Maria Sachs appeared with Fasano at a press conference accompanied by dozens of union workers at noon to blast the privatization.

Public safety has been a government function for more than 100 years, Sachs, a former prosecutor, said.

“Now what are we doing? We want to sell it to the highest bidder. Our government is not for sale and our prisons are not for sale. This strikes at the very essence of our system of government,” Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said.

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