By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A measure to turn over nearly a third of Florida's prisons to private for-profit corporations died in a nail-biting vote in the state senate on Tuesday.
In a stinging defeat to leaders of the Republican-led state Senate, a proposal to privatize at least 27 south Florida facilities was defeated by a coalition of Republicans and Democrats who said the promised 7 percent savings was uncertain and the cost to nearly 3,800 state workers too high.
The vote was 19-21.
"At the heart of this is, what is the problem we are trying to address?" said Republican Senator Paula Dockery. "Our Department of Corrections is doing an excellent job."
Florida operates the third largest prison system in the United States, a $2.2 billion-a-year system overseeing nearly 101,000 inmates and another 112,800 offenders on community supervision.
Critics question the concept of privatizing public safety, saying privately run prisons have a lower ratio of prison guards to inmates. And they note private prisons have no incentives to rehabilitate inmates and focus instead on profits.
Tuesday's defeat came despite the intercession of Republican Governor Rick Scott, who urged lawmakers to approve the measure and divert any savings to education and other priorities that have been pressed by a budget deficit of about $1.5 billion.
"There is no way we'll do this if we don't save money," said
Scott. "The bill says if we don't save at least 7 percent we don't do prison privatization. Why wouldn't we put ourselves in the position to save money to put into programs that we know we need to fund?"
Senators jousted over the measure supporters say would have saved at least $16.5 million a year.
Critics included two former sheriffs who said privatizing prisons would lead to public safety concerns and lower pay for corrections officers who risk their lives in dangerous situations. The two former law enforcement officers were joined by lawmakers who had toured state correctional facilities.
"You can't make a pet out of a rattlesnake," said Senator Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican and a key swing vote in Tuesday's defeat of the bill, referring to prison inmates. "Believe me, they (guards) put themselves at risk every day."
Amendments were offered to give state employees job preference when prisons went private, but were not persuasive. Critics said some employees were not in a position to move to take a new job, and would likely take a pay cut if they did.
"If we pass this today we will be hurting hardworking state employees and their families," said Senator Audrey Gibson, a Miami Democrat.
Backers, however, said the governor already has the authority to privatize prisons anywhere in the state. The proposal, therefore would simply give the legislature more say in the matter, they said.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Todd Eastham)