Prison privatization proposal failure stings Fla. Senate President Mike Haridopolos
Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
Published February 26, 2012
TALLAHASSEE — Last year, it took until the last day of the legislative session for Senate President Mike Haridopolos to get embarrassed. This year, it happened with three weeks left.
In a rebuke to Haridopolos and his leadership team, a group of nine Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday to defeat one of his priority bills: a revived prison-privatization plan to replace the one struck down last year by a Tallahassee judge as unconstitutional.
The nine rogue Republicans had different reasons for voting against the measure, which would have been the largest single outsourcing of prisons in the nation's history.
Some didn't accept Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander's assurance that it would save taxpayers money.
Two are former sheriffs whose experience with for-profit prisons was disastrous.
And others didn't like being forced by leaders of their party to support a plan they believed was too risky for a variety of reasons.
Haridopolos twice pulled the bill from debate on the Senate floor after it became apparent he lacked the support to pass it . And late last month, Haridopolos stripped Sen. Mike Fasano - an outspoken critic of the privatization - of a budget committee chairmanship after Fasano garnered enough support to kill the bill.
Fasano, Sen. Paula Dockery and Sen. Jack Latvala led the revolt against the proposal, insisting their 20-member coalition would stand firm even as senators filed into the chamber Tuesday afternoon.
Even so, Haridopolos prepared to bring it up for action. He and Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, who sponsored the measure (SB 2038), put off the vote until the end of the four-hour session, possibly hoping to persuade one more member to vote on their side.
It didn't happen. The bill died, 21-19.
"I accept the verdict of the Senate," Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said after the vote. "Those things happen. Tomorrow's a new day. Everyone's going to move forward from this point."
But even proponents of the measure were left wondering why Haridopolos and his lieutenants, including veteran lawmaker and former House Speaker Thrasher, forced the vote when they knew it would be close, and with so much time remaining until the March 10 end of the session.
"I think they were desperate to get it done," said Dockery, R-Lakeland. "The big question is, why was this such a big deal? I don't know why it was so important."
Dockery, a moderate Republican who has defied the GOP leadership in the past, is serving her last session because of term limits. Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, are also in their final terms, adding to their independence. All three voted against the bill.
The vote also came against the backdrop of a political fight over who will be Senate president in 2014. Latvala is challenging Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, presumed to follow in Senate President-designate Don Gaetz's footsteps.
Although most of those involved agree the privatization vote was not directly related to the presidency skirmish, Latvala's cachet was undoubtedly elevated by the vote. "The line outside Latvala's office got a lot longer that day," a longtime lobbyist involved in the privatization issue said last week.
Even with a supermajority of Republicans, the Senate has a long tradition of being a more moderate chamber than the House. Senate districts are larger, meaning constituencies are often more diverse, and the four-year terms in the upper chamber - twice as long as the House - give members more time between campaigns.
Republican senators have split with their caucus and joined Democrats to forge coalitions in the past. Last year, bipartisan pairings beat back a split of the Florida Supreme Court proposed by House Speaker Dean Cannon, and a Republican red-meat issue sponsored by Thrasher that would have halted payroll deductions for union dues.
But it is unusual for a priority issue such as the prison privatization to die on the Senate floor.
On the last day of the session last year, a bipartisan group publicly revolted - this time with even wider support - and voted down three budget-related bills, again leaving Thrasher and Haridopolos on the losing side.
And that was before the session fizzled to an end around 2 a.m. - long past its scheduled finale - after which Haridopolos walked away disappointed that the House also had snubbed two of his priority bills.
Those bills were to pay claims to a Fort Lauderdale man injured in a crash with a Broward County sheriff's deputy more than a decade ago, and to a man who served 27 years behind bars before being exonerated by DNA evidence.
Even now, a year later, the House on Friday gave those claims bills only initial approval. The bills were passed by the Senate on Jan. 11, the opening day of this year's legislative session.
Gardiner, R-Orlando, downplayed the significance of the privatization vote and said it was necessary for the Senate to move on.
"We can't have it both ways. If everybody's lock step, they complain that everybody's lock step. If Republicans vote their conscience, then supposedly there's a rift. I don't think there's any of that," Gardiner said. "This is not uncommon. The Senate's always been very independent. It doesn't concern me a bit."
But with the budget just being rolled out and time running out, Republicans who defied leadership are worried about retribution, especially after Gaetz, R-Niceville, issued a warning on the Senate floor just before the votes were cast.
"So the world won't come to an end if we vote yes or if we vote no. But the burden lies heavy on those who vote no" when they seek an item in the budget from Alexander, Gaetz said.
Those who aren't term-limited like Dockery are cautious about speaking publicly about the Senate's future. "The morale in the Senate is very low. Members who've been there a long time are sad to see what's happened in terms of collegiality and voting their conscience," she said.
Haridopolos has praised himself for moving the Senate further to the right, as evidenced by a slew of anti-abortion measures, the end of teacher tenure and other conservative issues passed under his watch. But the defeat of the prison privatization, fought by a coalition of unions, raises questions about how conservative he has left the chamber, especially with the ascendancy of Latvala, R-St. Petersburg.
"There's something known as going too far. All over the country, you have seen legislatures are taking particularly the union issues too far. And folks are rebelling," said Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston .
House Speaker Cannon, R-Winter Park, refused to weigh in on whether Haridopolos' defeat weakens the chamber in budget negotiations with the House in coming days.
But asked if the vote would complicate things, Cannon's successor, Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, paused.
"The legislature is always complicated, right?" Weatherford said. "That's all I know."