House committee passes budget that could lead to privatization of some prisons

03/30/11 Kate Bradshaw
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The Florida House Committee on Appropriations approved that chamber’s version of the state budget along party lines today. The $66.5 billion proposal includes massive cuts to corrections, higher education, and cancer research.

All eight Democratic budget subcommittee members voted against the house proposal. All Republicans in attendance voted for the measure, which would close a $3.7 billion gap without raising taxes – something promised on many a campaign trail in the lead-up to the 2010 elections. Miami Republican Carlos Lopez Cantera said the agonizing, across-the-board cuts contained in the budget were the only way to accomplish this.

"I don't know of any other way except the product that you have in front of you and it will continue through the conference process but I don't think that there would have been any other way without raising taxes."

Committee Democrats challenged some of the document’s more dramatic cuts, including a provision that would effectively privatize corrections operations in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties. Franklin Sands, a Democrat from Plantation, said making such a densely populated area a guinea pig for prison privatization is a bad idea.

"This segment of the budget does, in fact, adversely affect public safety and adversely affects the people in Miami-Dade and Broward County in particular. The 2 most populous counties with the most violent felons are the pilot programs? I don't think that's such a good idea."

Plant City Republican Richard Glorioso is Chair of the Justice Appropriations Subcommittee. He said the measure only instructs the state Department of Justice to look into the idea, and that desperate times call for desperate measures.

"When you have less money you cannot continue business as usual. You need to find new ways to do it. We've asked the department to come back with a proposal to let us know how they could privatize the DOC services of those two counties."

Parkland Democrat Martin Kiar filed an amendment that would have stricken the portion of the budget dealing with prison privatization. He cited a study by the legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability that he said shows no significant cost savings associated with privatizing.

"And it states when that comparitability issues limit the conclusiveness of cost savings analyis with regard to privatization and the department of corrections and I read that as basically saying is they don't have any clue or not as to whether it saves money so if we don't know whether it saves money or not, then what's the necessity to do this in Broward and Miami-Dade counties?"

James Baiardi is president of the State Correctional Officers’ Police Benevolent Association. During public comment on Kiar’s amendment, he said putting control of prisons and probation in private hands in an area so gang-ridden would be a disaster.

"Some parts of public safety just should not be privatized. And this, by far, is one of them. As for the prisons, the prisons in Miami-Dade and Broward County handle some of the worst inmates in the state. And to take them and just turn them over to these companies is unreal."

The committee voted down Kiar’s amendment along tight party lines. The House Budget’s Senate counterpart would privatize prisons throughout South Florida. Proponents say that would save $70 million. Among other areas facing drastic cuts in the House budget are education and the environment. Higher education faces $470 million in cuts. The Bright Futures program, which provides college scholarships for high school students with a B average who choose in-state schools, faces a 14 percent cut. Higher Education Subcommittee chair Marlene O’Toole, a Republican from The Villages, said that means less available money for those who qualify.

"All students are eligible for an award and there will be a small amount of decrease from what they were eligible before."

Some committee members expressed alarm to a proposed $50 million cut to cancer research centers including Tampa’s Moffitt Cancer Center. O’Toole said this reflects the fact that every aspect of higher education was impacted.

"Absolutely nothing was held whole. And we did the very best we could with the amount of money that we had. It is my hope that we will not stop the cancer research at all."

The news was bad for environmental advocates. Agriculture and Natural Resources subcommittee chair Trudi Williams, a For Meyers Republican, said funding for Everglades Restoration would be cut in half under the new budget. Tavernier Democrat Ron Saunders asked Williams about funding slated for Florida Forever, a program that buys up land throughout the state for conservation.

Rep. Ron Saunders:

"Last year we funded it to the tune of $15 million. Now that real estate prices have dropped, how much funding are we providing in this year's budget for Florida Forever?"

Rep. Trudi Williams:

"We're not putting any money in Florida Forever this year."

The panel approved the budget, with its across-the board cuts, along strict party lines. The proposal faces a full house vote. The Senate’s budget proposal, which is about $3.6 billion more than that of the house, is still in committee. They’re expected to take it up tomorrow.

Previous WMNF news coverage of prison privatization

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