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Dive inside Gov. Scott's criminal and civil justice budget ideas

Gov. Rick Scott's team of budget aides just briefed members of the Senate Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations, chaired by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, on his proposals for those services, amounting to about $169 million in cuts.

It went a lot better than the go-around in February, when Fasano and Sen. John Thrasher bickered over Scott's prison privatization proposal and Scott's aides subsequently boycotted Fasano's subcommittee meeting.

Thursday's meeting was actually kind of pleasant. Fasano said he liked that Scott looked for cost savings in eliminating unfilled positions in under-populated prisons and moving officers to 12-hour workdays.

Public safety amounts to about $4.6 billion of the state's overall budget, with Corrections making up the bulk of that chunk. Here are the highlights:

Corrections: The department expects $115 million in cuts. Florida's prison population is poised to fall below 100,000 "for the first time in a long time," amounting to about 16,000 unfilled beds, said Bonnie Rogers, a former Corrections chief of staff who works in Scott's budget office and specializes in public safety. Scott wants to cut between 4,500 and 5,000 prison beds by shifting prisoners into more populated facilities and closing the empty ones. That will result in savings of $67.4 million, Rogers said, and most Corrections staff are expected to move with the prisoners. The closed facilities have not been chosen.

The department could cut another $24.4 million through privatizing services, largely through its stuck-in-the-mud plan to outsource health, dental and pharmaceutical services. The project's RFP is being contested by three vendors, and the department is "working through" the protests, Rogers said. About $1.4 million could be saved through privatizing six work release centers. Fasano wants nonprofit groups to take over, but Scott leaves it up to private industry at large.

The agency could save another $8.9 million by moving correctional officers into two 12-hour shifts instead of three eight-hour shifts. 

Scott is eyeing a few investments, allocating $3.9 million to expand drug treatment during inmates' last three years of release, $500,000 for new protective vests, $2.5 million for an inmate farming program, and $1 million for 40 new inmate transportation vans.

"We'll do our best to get something," Fasano said.

Courts: Court administrators have requested $100 million in loans this year, largely due to a dropoff in mortgage foreclosure filing fees that fund the bulk of court operations. Basically, Scott wants to move the volatile mortgage fee that usually goes into a trust fund into the state's huge pot of money that funds most state operations. Instead of paying 90 percent of court operations via the trust fund, the courts would receive (next year, at least) trust fund money and then $280 million from the bigger pot, which is so large it can handle the unstable fees, Rogers said. The transfer of $280 million is supposed to represent what mortgage foreclosure filings should be.

Fasano recently talked with Chief Justice Charles Cannady about Scott's plan, and "he kind of indicated that it was a good idea," Fasano said.

Correctional Medical Authority: Scott wants to restore money for this independent agency, which monitors the quality of health care prisoners receive but was left without any money this summer, leading to an exodus of staffers and directors. Scott vetoed the bill that would have eliminated it. "The governor feels this is a valuable investment," Rogers said. Fasano agreed, saying he was happy for Scott's veto. Further, Scott wants to house the authority within the governor's office, though it used to reside within the Department of Health.

But what about the Taj? Fasano said he wishes Scott had proposed moving more state personnel or offices into the First District Court of Appeal's "luxurious" new building.

"Boy, I really believe that we need to fill that up and use that space," he said. "Such a waste of money, that building. So sad.