Dozens of current and former corrections workers from all over the state showed up at a state Senate rules committee meeting yesterday to voice their opposition to two bills that would allow the state to privatize prisons. Despite the emotional testimony warning of the calamitous effects of prison privatization, the bill eventually moved forward to its final committee stop.

About 50 public testimony cards were submitted for the hearing. All of the speakers, except for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, spoke in opposition of the bill.

One of the bills heard yesterday would privatize correctional facilities, which legislators tried and failed to accomplish last session. The other would allow the privatization of state functions to go through more secretively. If passed, the bill would allow the privatization of a public agency function to move along without being evaluated for feasibility, cost-effectiveness or efficiency. However, legislators backed off this part of the legislation: An amendment passed yesterday reinstated the need for the state to analyze both the benefits and drawbacks of privatizing a government function before moving forward with its plans.

Committee members such as state Sen. Don Gaetz, R- Destin, argued that the bills were necessary cost-saving measures that would allow the state to cut less money for education and health services.

The Senate budget committee for health and human services met at the beginning of the session. Members lamented that once more they were tasked with cutting public health services after years at chipping away at them.

“We have an obligation to balance to budget,” Gaetz said.

Groups ranging from the Teamsters, the Florida AFL-CIO, employees of the Department of Corrections and others all warned that prison privatization would threaten public safety and put corrections employees out of work. Many public testifiers warned that private prisons used inferior training and policies for their employees, and cut corners to save money.

Matt Puckett, a representative for the Police Benevolent Association, said the Legislature was making a “grave error.” Puckett’s organization is a union that represents corrections officers and prison guards. The group won a lawsuit against the state’s efforts to privatize prisons last session.

The judge who ruled on the case found that the Legislature “proceeded without statutory authority and contrary to statutory authority” when privatizing prisons in the state.

However, one of the bills heard today would create the statutory authority necessary to move forward with last session’s plans.

Puckett was also among the many testifiers that took issue yesterday with the fact the bills were not going through all the appropriate committees. Groups opposed to the measure, as well as other legislators, have said the bill should have been referred to committees that typically oversee prison policy: Criminal Justice, Governmental Oversight and Accountability, and Criminal & Civil Justice Appropriations.

State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, warned Senate President Mike Haridopolos that the two bills represent “potential changes to policy of such a magnitude that they should not have originated in a procedural committee such as the Rules Committee.” He also requested that the bills be “referred to the substantive committees that oversee this subject matter.”

“We are bypassing the procedures — speed bumps — we put in place,” Puckett said. “We need to slow this process down.”

The AFL-CIO’s Rich Templin said legislators were falsely claiming that the only way to save health and education funding was to privatize prisons.

“We still have loopholes in our tax structure,” he argued, saying that millions could be added to the state’s revenue if only the state would close tax loopholes. (A group of Democrats has introduced legislation that makes this very point.)

Andrew Rios, who also testified yesterday, was among the many people who said it was morally wrong for the state to privatize prisons.

“What’s getting lost in this is what is rights and wrong,” Rios said. “Slow it down. Take time to take a look at this. That’s all we are asking. Be human.”

Once the many impassioned testimonies against the bills were over, some legislators said they remained unconvinced.

Gaetz said he heard a “parade of horribles,” but also claimed “there was no evidence provided” showing that prison privatization would do any of the things people were claiming. He said all he heard were “anecdotal comments.”

He also said that “suggestions that [prison privatization] is being rushed is factually not true.”

Not every legislator was unmoved, though.

State Sen. Larcenia Bullard, D-Miami, said she was “very disappointed” that the bills would only go through two committees.

“The people have spoken,” she said. “How far are we going to go with privatization?”

The bills are scheduled to be heard in a Senate budget committee hearing on Wednesday.

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