Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled today that the process by which the Florida Legislature pushed through a plan to privatize prisons in 18 counties was unconstitutional, writing that the Department of Corrections “proceeded without statutory authority and contrary to statutory authority” by implementing the plan.

The lawsuit was filed by the Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents corrections officers and prison guards. The Florida Independent’s Travis Pillow outlined the argument behind the union’s lawsuit last month:

The union has long questioned the financial benefits of privatization and the calculus behind the 7 percent savings mandated by Florida statutes. The lawsuit contends that by inserting the privatization measure into the budget, legislative leaders avoided a rigorous public debate on the merits of privatization, and in the process violated legal and constitutional provisions intended to keep budgetary and policy-making measures separate.

The thrust of the first argument is that the privatization scheme is a policy change that should have been enacted through separate legislation, not budget proviso language. The complaint also contends that by tying the privatization proviso to the entire set of budget items for the Department of Corrections, lawmakers essentially made the change veto-proof, because if Gov. Rick Scott had vetoed the privatization scheme, he would have struck down the department’s entire budget, a situation Article 3, Section 12 of the state constitution was designed to prevent.

Update:

Starting to get reaction from elected officials. Here’s state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey:

“I applaud the judge for her wise decision to declare the attempt at privatizing these prisons unconstitutional,” Senator Fasano states. “The Florida Legislature should not be making major policy decisions by inserting last minute proviso language into the budget, thus circumventing the committee process. An issue as important as prison privatization should have been given the chance for thoughtful debate in the substantive committees that oversee this issue.”

“I congratulate the hard working correctional officers who have scored a major victory with this ruling,” Senator Fasano continues. “These fine individuals, who put their lives at stake each day as they run Florida’s prisons, deserve the ruling that has been handed down today.”

From state Rep. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg:

Today’s ruling reaffirms that it is entirely inappropriate for legislative leaders to avoid a thorough debate about a controversial issue like prison privatization by tucking it in the fine print of the state budget.

Privatizing prisons in Florida, and transferring state jobs to private companies, would be a major undertaking that, if considered at all, deserves sharp scrutiny by the Legislature and in the public eye. While I do not believe privatization is inherently wrong, there should be savings to the taxpayer and no compromise of public safety. Thus, full and fair debate is necessary.

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