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How Florida senate slammed door on private prisons

Staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 7, 2013 at 01:59 PM

Rarely do bills that reach the Florida Senate floor go down to defeat. By the time leaders schedule a vote, they can generally guarantee the outcome. So when they scheduled a vote this week to privatize state prisons in 18 South Florida counties, those of us fighting this deeply flawed plan caught our breaths. By our reckoning, the Senate was tied, 20-20.

In the business of politics, bills don't live or die on their merits. There's arm-twisting, deal-making and an enormous pressure to acquiesce, especially if you want something else for folks back home.

There's also procedural gamesmanship, cards that Senate leaders played in the extreme this session to advance the cause of private prison corporations.

The drama began in earnest two weeks ago, when those of us fighting prison privatization – which would have killed 3,800 jobs for a "trust us" savings of seven percent – were buoyed to see the bill temporarily passed on second reading.

"Temporarily passed" is a procedural move that sounds better than it is. To "TP a bill" can be a face-saving kiss of death. But it also can give leaders more time to twist arms. When the prison bill got TP'd, it was headed for defeat: 17-23.

Perhaps you heard what happened next. For questioning the so-called financial analysis, Senate leaders stripped Sen. Mike Fasano of his chairmanship on the Criminal Justice Appropriations Committee and his seat on the Budget Committee.

A week passed without movement, though leaders kept the bill on Special Order -- the list of bills to be taken up by the Senate that day. At least, that's how Special Order is supposed to work.

Talk spread through the Capitol that prison privatization was dead. Lobbyists for the private prisons agreed their prospects were bleak.

Gov. Rick Scott tried to sway two former sheriffs, Sens. Charlie Dean and Steve Oelrich, but both stood strong in opposition. However, two others were won over by senators in powerful positions. The new tally: 19-21.

The sooner we voted, the better for our side, but leadership kept the bill lingering on Special Order for two weeks. Fearing it might be sprung with one of us absent, Sen. Jack Latvala made a defensive move. Since senators can force the hearing of a bill on Special Order, and we hadn't made that request, Latvala sought and received the promise of a 24-hour notice before the bill's next hearing.

This week, after two weeks in limbo, the bill came up for second reading, the stage where senators can ask questions and offer amendments.

Sen. Fasano offered an amendment that would have gutted the bill and mandated a thorough fiscal analysis instead. The 21 senators opposed to privatization – the minimum number needed to pass an amendment – stood by him. But then a senator acquiesced, while promising to vote against the overall bill. Another senator defected, too, for a desired budget item. Fasano's amendment was defeated, 19-21, and leadership tried to persuade media the tide had turned.

Finally, the bill itself was ready for a yea-or-nay vote. Opponents hoped the bill could be quickly rolled over to third reading, the stage at which the actual vote happens. But it wasn't to be.

Then, one more twist: the scheduled start of the next day's session was moved from the morning to the afternoon. We assumed they wanted more time to try to switch votes. Then we learned two of our senators were heading home for special events. But when they saw what was happening, they abandoned their plans, so important was their vote.

Wednesday's events were as intense as anyone can remember. One senator was guarded by two other senators -- and had a posse of four large men at the door -- to keep proponents from getting to her. Another senator avoided the Capitol until the start of session. Two senators were visited on the floor, throughout the day, to see what issues could be bartered.

When the bill finally came up at the end of bills on third reading, the Rules Chair moved to postpone the vote until the end of bills on second reading. They needed more time. Vote count: 20-20 and holding.

Weary from the pressure, we wanted to vote and be done with it. Finally, the bill was brought up.

Members raised their microphone to debate, and opponents laid out a persuasive case against the ill-conceived rush to privatize prisons. Proponents still promised a "savings of 7 percent," no matter the lack of analysis or historical evidence. Senator after senator spoke. The chamber was silent, the gallery full.

Finally, they opened the vote board, where a green light signifies yes; red, no. I frantically counted the red votes, looking for our 20. Lo and behold, we had picked up another vote. Final tally: 19-21.

It was a rare moment on the floor of the Senate. A bad bill, dressed with flimsy facts, went down to defeat.

It was a good day, even though senators who voted their consciences already face punishment.

Sadly, you can expect a similar push next year.

For given the money at stake, the business of politics is relentless.


Paula Dockery is a term-limited Republican senator from Lakeland who is chronicling her final year in the Florida Senate. She can be reached at pdockery@floridavoices.com.
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