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Prison privatization alive in Senate -- but just barely

A tense and divided state Senate voted 21-19 on Monday to keep a controversial prison privatization plan alive.

The vote was on a so-called killer amendment by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would have substituted a study of privatization for the actual privatization of 27 prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties. Fasano's amendment would have gutted the bill (SB 2038).

The vote followed more than two hours of questions and debate. Backers emphasized the cost savings, at a minimum of $16.5 million the first year, which they said would boost education and health spending. Opponents argued that cost savings are unreliable and that public safety is too basic a government service to be outsourced to profit-making companies.

Eight Republicans joined 11 Democrats in supporting Fasano's amendment. One anti-privatization senator voted against the study: Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. He remained silent throughout the debate, but voted against the bill in a key committee two weeks ago.

A privatization supporter, Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, noted that the bill would require private prisons to be run at a 7 percent cost savings compared to state prisons. "If they don't perform, we don't pay them. It doesn't get any better than that."

At one point, Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, an outspoken opponent of prison privatization, faced Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, a leading supporter, and said: "I've asked you for a document showing the savings and you haven't presented it to me." --Steve Bousquet