TALLAHASSEE — As a divided Senate struggled for a second day over a prison privatization plan, its biggest critic was stripped of a chairmanship and an "extremely disappointed" Gov. Rick Scott twisted opposing senators' arms to no avail.
The chaos leaves a priority of Senate leaders in grave jeopardy a year after a similar plan was thrown out by a judge because it was tucked into the budget and not debated separately. Opponents said that such a massive expansion of privatization could not survive an up-or-down vote in the full Senate.
Senate leaders say the state can save much-needed money by outsourcing 26 prisons and work camps in South Florida to private, for-profit vendors with a guaranteed savings of at least 7 percent. But they face growing resistance from senators who doubt the promised savings of between $16 million and $30 million a year and who are unwilling to disrupt state workers' lives for what they say are modest savings in a budget of almost $70 billion.
Critics also say the cost of paying displaced prison workers for unused sick leave and vacation time would offset the savings.
Amid the mounting tension, Senate President Mike Haridopolos refused to bring up the bill for debate, a sign that it faced defeat. Ten of 28 Senate Republicans have voiced strong reservations or opposition to such a major policy shift, a serious rift in the GOP caucus.
The drama intensified as Haridopolos stripped Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, of his chairmanship of a budget subcommittee overseeing prisons, saying Fasano "was not rowing in the same direction" as Senate leaders on budget decisions.
"It's become clear to me that Sen. Fasano was not willing to make these choices," Haridopolos said.
Fasano said Haridopolos told him he was being punished for his anti-privatization comments in an MSNBC interview Monday.
"It's unfortunate when leaders of the Senate can't lose like gentlemen," Fasano said.
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, will replace Fasano as chairman of the criminal justice budget panel, and Sen. Jim Norman, R-Tampa, will take Bogdanoff's old assignment as the chairman of the Finance & Tax Committee. A longtime Hillsborough County commissioner, Norman is in his first term in the Senate and is seeking re-election.
As senators debated a school prayer bill Wednesday, Scott quietly summoned two Senate Republicans who oppose privatization to his office for one-on-one meetings. Scott is a strong supporter of the outsourcing plan.
Scott's backroom lobbying did no good. Both senators, former sheriffs, remain firmly opposed to more privatization of prisons.
Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, said he respects Scott as his party leader and "my quarterback," but added: "I stay with him but not on this issue, because I have my personal convictions that this is wrong."
Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Alachua, said Scott told him the savings are "foolproof" and are needed because the governor believes the state retirement fund is broke. Like Dean, Oelrich opposes outsourcing public safety.
"I'm not a big-government guy," Oelrich said. "But there's some things we ought to do and taking custody and control of the people we imprison is one of them."
Scott said of the senators' continued opposition: "We didn't get elected to waste any money. We didn't get elected to say that every program has to be run and staffed by somebody employed and paid by state government.
"I'm extremely disappointed that anybody in state government that's elected would not look at this as an opportunity to do a better job at a better price."
After Haridopolos shelved the bill Wednesday afternoon, another privatization foe, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, demanded a promise that he would provide advance notice before bringing it up next time.
"I think there's a concern level here that it's going to come bursting forward with a minimal amount of notice," Latvala told Haridopolos.
In another development, Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, disclosed a conflict of interest on prison privatization because his wife, Lori Weems, is a lobbyist for four labor groups that all oppose it.
Evers also is opposed to privatization, but said it's because he has 15 state prisons and 4,000 correctional officers in his Panhandle district — not because his wife is being paid to defeat it.
Under Senate rules, Evers can still vote on the bill (SB 2038) after disclosing the conflict.