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Senate sharply divided on prison privatization plan

Senate President Mike Haridopolos stopped debate on a contentious prison privatization bill Tuesday and acknowledged he's not sure it can pass. "Sometimes you don't win every vote. I think we could still win this vote. I think we will win this vote. We'll see," he said.

The bill (SB 2038) is a priority of Senate GOP leaders who want to outsource 26 prisons in South Florida to save money (at least $16.5 million in the first year, they say) and answer a judge who they say wrongly ruled that last year's privatization was done illegally by budget language.


But Haridopolos and two senators managing the bill -- budget chairman JD Alexander and Rules chairman John Thrasher -- appear to be fighting an uphill battle to nail down the 21 votes to pass privatization. In the 28-member GOP caucus, at least 10 Republicans are ready to vote no or to vote for a killer amendment by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would replace privatization with a study.

If the bill fails, it will be a major defeat for Haridopolos, who stopped discussion without bringing up Fasano's amendment for a vote. The Senate president said he wanted to give the issue the time it needs Wednesday, but Fasano said: "My amendment would have passed, and to prove my point, they stopped." Fasano says there are enough votes, including 11 of 12 Democrats (all but Orlando's Gary Siplin), to kill privatization.

Senate GOP stalwarts such as Charlie Dean of Inverness and Steve Oelrich of Cross Creek -- both former sheriffs -- are opposed to the massive privatization expansion. "It's just wrong," Dean told the Times/Herald's Katie Sanders. Dean is separately grappling with the state's planned closing of a prison in his district, in Jefferson County, which Alexander conceded was a complicating factor.

For two hours, senators sparred over whether privatization will save money. Skeptical questions abounded from Republicans Paula Dockery and Jack Latvala, and Sen. Nancy Detert said she likes Fasano's amendment. When the savings argument faltered, senators cited a wrong-headed judge striking down Senate budget language. "I don't think anybody in here wants a court to dictate how we do our budget," Thrasher told senators. The Senate resumes debate at 1 p.m. Wednesday. -- Steve Bousquet