Monday, August 29, 2011

Florida's Misguided Privatization Push

Florida is one of a few states that is seeing a wave of pro-privatization, anti-government rhetoric wreak havoc on employee unions and public services after electing a super conservative governor.  This same governor has also, with the help of longtime privatization advocate and state budget chair JD Alexander, pushed for Florida to embark on the most ambitious prison privatization scheme in history.  The state is currently in the process of privatizating the correctional services of 18 counties, covering nearly 30 facilities.  Thousands of state employees will lose their jobs as an inherently governmental function is turned over to a profit-driven private industry with a long history of human rights abuses and failure to deliver on promised cost-savings.  However, conservatives never seem to concerned with how much their bogus strategies wind up costing the state, as is evidenced by Scott's mandatory drug-testing program for welfare recipients that has already wound up costing taxpayers far more than its anticipated savings.  Hopefully though the state legislature will come to realize that privatization is an experiment that has consistently failed, and they need look no further than their own state to see just how poorly the industry has performed, and how undeserving it is of being rewarded for its failures

But it's not just the headlong dive into privatization that's got me concerned.  In addition to giving this blatant handout to an industry that donated $1,000,000 in the last election cycle, the state Legislature has just gutted the agency charged with overseeing medical care for the state's prisoners.  JD Alexander, who has been arguably the biggest proponent of privatizing the states' prisons since he tried to ram through a last-minute budget amendment last year forcing the state to send more prisoners to private facilities, is the Chairman of the Budget Committee that failed to appropriate funds for the agency.  So not only is the state handing over operations of prisons to private companies, it also failed to fund an agency that would have some oversight over an industry notorious for being able to evade it.

Making matters worse, Governor Scott's office just pressured state DOC officials to cancel a contract with a separate monitor who was set to oversee the state's planned privatization of even more prisoner health care.  Just to make it clear, the state is also looking to privatize medical care for thousands of prisoners, in addition to privatizing much of the state system; this lady would have overseen that medical care.  But as with all conservative political maneuverings designed to steer power and taxpayer dollars away from government and into private hands, the powers that be decided having any sort of effective oversight that could produce some accountability would be bad for business' bottom lines, so they eliminated the threat.  Granted, she probably would not have been a great or even unbiased monitor, because her husband works for the ACA, but some oversight has to be better than nothing.

So - Florida is going to privatize correctional services for thousands of prisoners, costing thousands of state jobs and millions of dollars that taxpayers must foot the bill for.  The same politicians who were bought off with $1 million worth of campaign contributions have stripped oversight agencies and individuals of power so that these new prisons can abuse people without scrutiny.  But what about the contracts to be awarded?  Surely, the state wouldn't turn over all these services to one single company, which would totally undermine the conservative argument of competition increasing the viability of the marketplace, right?  Wrong.  The state wants to give all the contracts to one company.  So now one company will now be in control of several hundred million dollars worth of state contracts.

If this strikes you as rather bizarre, foolish, and seemingly corrupt, you're not alone.  It turns out the FBI concurs with us.  They have launched an investigation into the overt corruption that has plagued this deal since before it was even hatched.  See, the former Speaker of the House, Ray Sansom, is currently serving time in federal prison for corruption and bribery charges after he, as Budget Chairman (JD Alexander's current role) tried to force through a last-minute budget amendment forcing the state to fund a private prison (sound familiar?), which ended up costing the state $140 million.  This came after he had taken a "personal" trip to Boca Raton, home of the GEO Group, which donated more than $800,000 in this past election and was awarded the contract for the prison Sansom got built.  Sansom claims he met with legislators on that trip and it wasn't related to the $140 million facility he got funded, but he can't remember which legislators.

Thankfully, the FBI seems to be seriously investigating this absurd situation.  Unfortunately though for Ed Buss, secretary of the state's DOC, their intervention did not come soon enough.  Buss was forced to resign last week because he was not supportive enough of Governor Scott's and JD Alexander's push to privatize half of his system.  Buss had warned the Governor and Budget Chairman of the $25 million that taxpayer would be on the hook for if the privatization plan moved ahead, and basically lost his job because he, as the head of the department of corrections, thought it would be a bad idea to privatize correctional services.  He has already been defended by State Senator Paula Dockery, who questions the privatization push and the message Buss' ouster will send to other members of the Scott administration.  She properly points out that the privatization effort is about more than "saving money," as JD Alexander would say.  "'It’s not only not going to save money, it’s going to affect public safety,' she said. 'It’s more than just money. It’s a complete change in policy.'"

I just hope Governor Scott keeps that in mind and stays true to his word, because he recently remarked that "If [the privatization plan] does not save money, then we won't do it."  Well Mr. Scott, let me be the first to tell you you will not save money, and you are taking a very risky gamble on public safety and the integrity of your state's government in this process.  I sincerely hope you reconsider this misguided push to privatize your prisons.


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