Florida Senate president ousts committee chair for opposing prison privatization
Courtesy of The Palm Beach Post
Published February 3, 2012
TALLAHASSEE — Angered at his inability to win votes to privatize Florida prisons, Senate President Mike Haridopolos on Wednesday ousted a budget committee chairman leading the charge against the bill.
Haridopolos stripped Sen. Mike Fasano of his chairmanship of the Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Committee, telling reporters, "I just felt I had lost confidence in him" in cutting government costs. The committee oversees state spending on prisons and courts.
"It was a very difficult decision, but I just felt he was not rowing in the same direction. He was not ready to make the tough choices. He couldn't handle the responsibility."
Haridopolos ousted Fasano as chairman and from the larger budget committee after it became clear Fasano had garnered support for an amendment to a prison privatization bill that would have done away with the outsourcing of the 18-county region of Department of Corrections operations in the southern portion of the state.
The privatization has been a priority of GOP leadership since last year.
Fasano's plan would have required state economists to perform a cost-benefit analysis of the privatization plan as well as the closures of 11 prisons and work camps ordered by corrections officials last month.
Fasano said he was called into Haridopolos' office for a brief meeting where he was given the news.
"Unfortunately, this is about the special interests of Tallahassee. This is a perfect example of when they don't get their way, and leadership doesn't get their way, they start firing people, or they start removing legislators from their chairmanships," Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said.
The blow-up over the privatization effort illustrates why lawmakers last year tucked the outsourcing into the must-pass budget rather than risk a less-than-certain vote on a separate bill. A Tallahassee judge threw out the privatization plan because of the way it was passed.
GOP leaders -- including Haridopolos, Senate budget chief JD Alexander and Gov. Rick Scott -- have revived the privatization effort this year, this time in a separate bill, but Haridopolos has now twice put it on hold on the Senate floor because he lacked the votes to keep it alive.
The result is a fractured GOP Senate caucus, in which at least 10 Republicans have indicated they would not support the privatization. At least 10 Democrats also oppose the plan, which would require at least 21 votes to pass if all 40 members of the chamber were present.
Scott today called into his office a handful of Republican senators who object to the outsourcing, trying to persuade them that the state budget hinges on the savings -- estimated by Alexander to be about $16.5 million in the first year.
Sen. Charlie Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff whose district is north of the region slated to be privatized but which contains state-run prisons, was among those lobbied by Scott. Dean said Scott urged him to reconsider the privatization to bring the costs of prisons in line with his own budget but that he refused.
"He responded that it was difficult being the governor and being a member of his party and a member of the Senate, that he needed to have that support," Dean, R-Inverness, said. "I told him nothing personal but I have a right to have my convictions and I have a right to pursue my distrust or dislike for privatization."
Fasano's ouster did not faze Dean, who said he's against the privatization of the southern region, which would impact nearly 4,000 employees in 26 facilities, because "sooner or later there's going to be a domino effect for any prison in the state" to be outsourced.
Haridopolos declined to bring up the privatization bill (SB 2038) for debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, after cutting off discussion the day before. He said he wanted to give senators the weekend to continue to think about their position.
"I've been in the process for 17 years," Fasano said. "If the leadership, with all great respect, had the votes to pass privatization, or at the minimum, stop my amendments, they would have brought the bill up."
And the shuffling of committee chairman chairs coincided with dozens of prison workers from around the state, including nearby Jefferson Correctional Institution slated to be shuttered, descending on the Capitol to decry the closures and the privatization.
Unions representing law enforcement officers and teachers joined in the chorus blasting Fasano's ejection.
"This is a shameful attack on Sen. Fasano, the integrity of the Senate and the democratic process," Ken Wood, president of the Teamsters Florida chapter that represents prison guards, said in a statement. "The citizens of Florida should be outraged by this bullying of a people's representative.