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Prison hiring program rejected; Cabinet members get protection

Senate and House negotiators struck agreements on many spending items Friday, including a rejection of the prison system's request for 734 new correctional officers and giving Cabinet members the option of state trooper protection for the first time.

Those decisions were among dozens of deals brokered by the Legislature's two main budget-writers, Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, and Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, who publicly ratified deals they and their staffs made in criminal justice, courts, tourism, transportation and economic development. 

In the prison system, independent audits have repeatedly flagged staff shortages as a security crisis. But even though lawmakers budgeted $12.2 million for new hires, they have approved 215 new correctional officer jobs, not the 734 that Corrections Secretary Julie Jones says she needs, especially because the agency is changing from 12-hour shifts back to eight-hour shifts. Jones calls the 734 positions "an operational imperative that will increase both safety and security in our institutions."

Lee said he and Corcoran decided that the agency could not handle so much hiring while also reworking a contract for inmate health care. "Our staff felt the department pretty much had its hands full dealing with the health care issues," Lee said, "and this was probably more than they could swallow."

Friday's deal included a one-year program to assign a state trooper to each of the three elected Cabinet members "if deemed appropriate by the department (of highway safety) or in response to a threat, and upon written request of such Cabinet member."

Corcoran said the request originated with Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has had threats. Having a trooper behind the wheel of a sleek new SUV could ease transportation headaches for Cabinet members, who have largely traveled by car after Gov. Rick Scott eliminated state aircraft when he took office in 2011.

Lee and Corcoran also agreed on dozens of local projects in lawmakers' districts that still must survive Scott's veto pen. Examples include $3 million for the historic Cocoa Village Playhouse parking garage; $2 million for Nathan Benderson Park, a rowing facility in Sarasota; $2 million for an African-American memorial park in Deerfield Beach; $1.5 million for a veterans memorial park in Hillsborough; $1 million for the Ruth Eckerd Hall expansion in Clearwater; and $600,000 to relocate the Tampa Heights Youth Civic Center.