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Gov. Rick Scott mulls moving forward with prison privatization despite Senate rejection

Gov. Rick Scott said he will explore opportunities to privatize state prisons on his own following the Senate's defeat of a bill that would have required some prisons be bid out to private companies.

Speaking to reporters Thursday morning after a public event on insurance fraud, Scott acknowledged that initially he didn't consider privatizing prisons a priority, but was disappointed the Senate voted down a bill that would have done that, and said he'll explore what many backers of the Senate plan said was a possibility – that the governor could order privatization unilaterally.

"It wasn't something that was one of my legislative session priorities this year, but here's what I think about it," Scott said. "I got elected to hold government accountable, to not waste taxpayers' money. So here was an opportunity that the Senate had to give us the opportunity to save a significant amount of money….. I’m disappointed the Senate didn’t do that. I’m going to look at what I have the opportunity to do. …I'm going to make sure that we don't waste money."

Scott pointed out that there are fewer inmates than anticipated and that it didn't make sense to spend state dollars on half-full prisons.

"Why wouldn't we save that money and put the money into education, into textbooks, and to make sure we have the right health care safety net instead of spending the money where we don't need to?" Scott said.

The Senate earlier this week voted 21-19 against a bill that would have required privatization of most of the prison facilities in an 18-county area from roughly Tampa Bay south. The bill would have required prison operators to guarantee savings of $16.5 million a year immediately in order to get the bid, though many opponents said they didn't believe the savings would materialize.

A coalition of senators from both parties, including those who represent lots of prison guards, to those who said they didn't trust the savings figures, to those who said they worried about turning over a critical safety function to the private sector, opposed the bill, which was a top priority of the Republican leadership in the Senate.

Scott's jump into the controversy – after months of refusing to answer directly what his position was on the idea – drew immediate criticism from the opponents of privatization, including the union that currently represents most state corrections officers.

"The Senate reflected the will of the citizens of Florida when it voted to kill prison privatization," said Ken Wood, acting president of Teamsters Local 2011, which represents about 20,000 correctional officers in the state. "Floridians do not want the rules changed so private companies can get secret contracts with no cost-benefit analysis and no public review."

The House never got a chance to vote on the issue.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said Thursday when asked what he thought about Scott taking the lead on the issue that he would defer to the governor and if Scott pursued it, he would likely support him.

"That's totally his call," Cannon said. "I've said that my personal view is that privatization is one component of reconfiguring our criminal justice system asset. It's not a panacea … But the bill died in the Senate, so I think as a legislative matter it's dead. I would defer entirely to him if he chooses to pursue it, I would be inclined to respect his judgment."

News Service of Florida