News Section: State Government
Crashing the Party
Some Florida lawmakers are bucking the system and actually representing the people
Entering the 2012 legislative session, there seemed like little hope for anything other than more of the same. But Tuesday's Senate vote on the privatization of state prison facilities in south Florida demonstrated that there are just enough legislators willing to buck party bosses and deliver a vote on behalf of the best interest of their real employers and that the number is growing.
As the session began, the writing was on the wall. Having failed to circumvent the democratic process in 2011 when they tried to slip the provision into a budgetary measure only to be turned back by the courts pro-privatization forces in the Florida GOP were going to ram through a bill with as little debate as humanly possible. Why? Because any serious consideration of the plan would expose it for the special interest feeding frenzy that it was.
The session opened up with some tell-tale signs. Senator Paula Dockery (R-Lakeland), an outspoken critic of privatization, was stripped of her seat on the Criminal Justice Committee, which, like other relevant committees, seemed conveniently loaded with privatization supporters for 2012. A notable exception was Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey), chair of the Committee on Criminal Justice Appropriations, who Senate President Mike Haridopolos must have felt confident had either gotten the message or couldn't do too much damage when the larger budget committee was stacked with supporters.
But when the filing deadlines both for drafting and submitting new legislation came and went without a privatization bill submitted, many opponents let out a sigh of relief. Then a strange thing happened. A week later, a bill showed up not in the Criminal Justice Committee, or Fasano's Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee, or even the Governmental Operations Committee, which oversees matters regarding state employees like corrections officers. Instead, it showed up in a place called the Committee on Rules.
According to the Senate website, in addition to rules and ethics issues, the committee is involved in the flow of legislation throughout the legislative process including bill referral recommendations, planning schedules for committee meetings and floor sessions, and setting calendars of bills to be considered by the full Senate.
In other words, it's just the right place to fast track a piece of tardily-submitted legislation toward a vote on the Senate floor. It didn't hurt that it's also filled with pro-privatization lawmakers who quickly passed the bill 10-4, despite a windfall of public opposition. Haridopolos agreed to send it to one more committee the budget committee, which is chaired by one of privatization's loudest proponents, Senator J.D. Alexander (R-Lake Wales).
The committee heard the bill an uncharacteristically-quick two days later, but would not allow expert testimony from the many people who'd made the trip to Tallahassee. They passed it, but Fasano voiced his opposition and was not only stripped of his chairmanship, but also removed from the larger budget committee as well, because as Haridopolos told the Palm Beach Post, he wasn't "rowing in the same direction." Just to make sure everyone else got the message and had time to think about whether they wanted to row up the creek without a paddle, Haridopolos declined to let it go to the floor for debate until after the weekend.
When it finally did get to the floor, all hell broke loose. No longer forced to sit on the sidelines, Dockery and Fasano put their colleagues on the spot, casting light on all of the questionable aspects of the proposed plan. Did they want to displace thousands of middle-class Floridians at a time of record unemployment in exchange for what would likely be less jobs at a very low rate of pay? Did they want to incur the $16.5 million in benefits that would be owed to those workers and then add them to the unemployment rolls? What about the impact on depressed communities that would lose an employment hub and all of the economic activity that its workers contribute?
Before the last day of debate, Dockery released a study she'd put together demonstrating that the cost savings claimed by other privately-managed state facilities didn't actually exist, and that per diem cost was actually higher at for-profit facilities when comparing similar inmates (private facilities often mask costs by ensuring that they receive inmates least expensive to house and then comparing expenses to a state-managed population that includes higher rates of sick and disabled prisoners).
For anyone who hadn't figured out why the bill was rammed through with such careful concern given to preventing debate and study, they now had the answer. So, why did so many legislators act with such intense vigor to fundamentally change the state's correctional system when it clearly did not offer the financial benefits promised and why after this was made known, did it fail to change the minds of 19 Senators who continued to not only support it, but opposed even delaying it until they could fully understand the impacts or complete the court-ordered cost study that had been thus far ignored? Like anything else in politics, follow the money and you get the answer.
The GEO Group, a Boca Raton-based private corrections firm, was the number one financial contributor to the Republican Party of Florida in 2010. By donating to the party, rather than the individual legislators, they can provide cover for the shills in Tallahassee. The party can craft the agenda and anyone who goes off-script pays through a loss of support, while those who rise up the ranks are clearly the same ones carrying the water for special interests. GEO and other heavy-spending groups like CCA simply bought this big push from the GOP bosses who set the legislative agenda, with shameless stooges like Haridopolos there to stack the deck and make sure they win a rigged hand.
Florida isn't alone. The massive growth in private corrections has coincided with a well-timed surge in political spending. As defense contractors can tell you, there's untold riches in doing business with the taxpayers, because the taxpayers don't sign the checks the bought and paid for politicians do. For these self-described free market fans, there's no business like public business, where you can charge what you want, pay out what you want and provide whatever level of service you want, as long as you're willing to grease the right palms when the time comes.
The privatization argument didn't square last year and it doesn't square now. There is no credible evidence that it will save taxpayers money, considerable evidence that it will cost them more, and there is the irrefutable fact that it will prove devastating to many communities as it puts hard-working Floridians out of a job, just to fatten the pockets of a few at the top. The fact that such enormous efforts were given to keep the economics from being studied or specifics debated, especially since the industry has rained down so much money on lawmakers, just makes this boondoggle more transparent. The majority of people on either side of the aisle in Tallahassee, just like Washington, do not work for you they work for the special interests who've sponsored their spot at the taxpayer trough.
There was nothing heroic about what Senators like Dockery and Fasano did. They simply used their common sense to look at an issue objectively and point out the very obvious downsides to rushing to conclusion on a major issue that would have a tremendous impact on the state. The fact that a lousy piece of bought and paid for legislation barely got defeated (21-19) shouldn't be a victory but it is, and that crystallizes the state of politics in Florida. Boondoggles like the CSX deal, the sham homeowner's insurance legislation passed last year, and any number of others have conditioned us to set the bar so low, it's covered in dirt. Kudos to those Senators for at least calling the chamber to the carpet, so that voters can now have a road map as to who's on their side and who's lock step with the party bosses. Once can only hope they'll send them packing at reelection time.
Click here to see how your Senator voted on the prison privatization bill.