State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, says that Florida legislators are “rushing” their prison privatization plans so that “private prison companies can add to their profits.”

Fasano was among the most visibly upset legislators yesterday as a Senate budget committee passed a prison privatization bill in its last committee stop without public testimony from experts. Dozens of individuals who traveled  to Tallahassee to speak against the bill were unable to appeal to legislators before lawmakers cast their votes for the bill.

Corrections officers, labor groups and public policy experts have expressed concern over the state’s plans. They warned legislators that prison privatization would threaten public safety and put corrections employees out of work. Many testifiers warned that private prison companies use inferior training and policies for their employees, and cut corners to save money.

During debate yesterday, Fasano asked committee leaders for exact numbers about the fiscal impact of the privatization plan.

J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who chairs the committee, told Fasano that the “bill requires a minimum of 7 percent savings,” which would amount to $20-$40 million in savings.

But Fasano countered by saying that estimates at this point in the legislative process are inappropriate.

“We are at the budget committee now,” he told committee leaders. “This is the last stop. … This is something that should be exact.”

Fasano tells me today that he cannot remember a time when a bill was at a budget committee and so little was known about the fiscal impact. “It is very surprising considering it’s a budget committee,” he says.

“No one has a clue what the exact fiscal impact would be,” he adds. “I have never seen that.”

Several amendments were introduced during the hearing to make the bill more palatable to groups that raised concerns during the bill’s last committee stop. One provision would require that private companies do anything they can to keep as many workers as possible in the transition.

But Fasano says that there is really nothing in the legislation that “stops private prisons from saying no to someone.” He says that it would be “difficult to quantify” and prove that companies were doing all they could to save people’s jobs.

“These guards have made these communities their homes,” he says. “It’s just sad.”

Other amendments include a provision that holds private companies financially responsible for the costs of an escapee for only the first 48 hours. During the committee meeting Fasano said that after 48 hours the cost of local law enforcement would be ”on the backs of the taxpayers,” instead of the companies who are “making millions off of this deal.”

Proponents of the bill have said the effort was filed in response to a ruling made when a judge struck down the Legislature’s attempt to privatize prisons last year. The judge ruled last year that the process by which the legislators pushed through its plans to privatize prisons in 18 counties was unconstitutional and lacked statutory authority.

When the ruling was announced last year, Fasano released a statement saying that he applauded the judge “for her wise decision to declare the attempt at privatizing these prisons unconstitutional.” Fasano said “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,” he said last September.

Today, Fasano says the bill “is on a fast track … to accomodate a few companies.”

“They are doing this so that two major private prison companies can add to their profits,” Fasano says, pointing to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and The GEO Group as major beneficiaries of the privatization.

As The American Independent’s Yana Kunichoff reported last October:

The private prison industry, like many others service-based private companies, relies on the goodwill of legislators. Campaign finance rules in Florida place a limit on how much companies can give to individual state legislators, so companies often give to a party instead, says Nicole Porter, state advocacy coordinator for the Justice Center.

GEO Group, conceived in 1954, is a significant donor to the Republican Party of Florida. In 2010, GEO Group donated $575,500, and through the first two quarters of 2011, it gave $160,000 total, according to the Florida Department of State.

This means that if donations trickle down to an individual candidate, there is little record, said Porter. Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, the most vocal proponents of the privatization bill, have no record of funding from GEO Group in their campaign disclosure statements from the last three years.

Fasano says he has concerns as to how exactly the private prisons will cut costs. He says that in order to save money these companies slash benefits and cut the ratio of guards to prisoners. According to the senator, changing that ratio raises public safety concerns.”You don’t privatize public safety,” Fasano says. “That’s wrong.”

“They are rushing a piece of legislation through a process without public input,” he explains, “and 4,000 families are at risk of losing their jobs.”

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