- 2012 - September - 13th -

Legislative Budget Commission approves privatization amendment

by Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida

A budget amendment that would allow the Department of Corrections to move forward with a plan to privatize health-care services for its inmates passed the Legislative Budget Commission on a party-line vote Wednesday.

The action almost guarantees a lawsuit, with unions representing affected workers vowing that they will move to block the privatization drive. Earlier efforts to privatize prison functions have also been tied up in court.

The 6-4 vote by the panel technically just shifts money around in the department’s budget to provide the funding for pushing ahead with the initiative. But Democratic lawmakers said the move was a de facto change in policy that was far beyond the authority of the commission, which was created to handle midyear adjustments to the state spending plan.

Department officials say they have the authority to carry out the privatization, an action expected to save $56 million, under a provision of law that says the agency “may contract for the provision of services by counties, municipalities, nonprofit corporations, and other entities capable of providing needed services” if it will save money.

“We’re not enacting a policy,” Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander (R-Lake Wales) told reporters after the meeting. “The executive branch is operating within its established legal authority.”

But Rep. Darryl Rouson (D-St. Petersburg) said the department’s reading of the law was a stretch.

“Why then would you ever need to come to the Legislature for any appropriation or permission or authorization if you have the unbridled authority under ‘other entities’ to contract anywhere?” he asked.

Critics also worried about the impact of the potential move on state workers who would possibly lose their job if a private company took over health care.

“They may be offered a job with the private firm, but most likely at a lower salary with much lower benefits,” said Chris Snow of the Florida Nurses Association. The group represents 850 workers in state prisons, Snow said.

Democrats and opponents also questioned whether private companies would provide an acceptable level of care to inmates in an effort to cut costs.

Supporters largely brushed off many of the concerns.

“There are going to be problems, either way you go,” Alexander said. “The question is, can we improve the quality and save money? And the Department of Corrections and the governor’s office have put forward a

plan that they believe will do that.”

Efforts to privatize prison functions have led to lengthy court battles in recent months. A Leon County circuit judge declined to rule on a previous effort in 2011 to privatize prison health-care services through the fine print of the budget because the language expired June 30, before he could rule on it.

A separate judge blocked efforts to privatize all prisons in the southern third of the state; the 1st District Court of Appeal rejected an appeal by Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, saying she didn’t have standing to appeal the decision because she wasn’t a party to the case.

Doug Martin of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees made it clear Wednesday that his group intended to quickly challenge the newest privatization push in court.

“It could be as soon as tomorrow,” Martin said.

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