It wasn't supposed to be a nail biter. It was supposed to be a bill that effortlessly slithered its way through a well-oiled State Legislature.
Here's how it happened:
The Republican-controlled Florida legislature was set to consider a bill that would have authorized private sector bidding on all of South Florida's state prisons. That's twenty-nine prisons in 18 counties. The successful bidder would have to guarantee the state a seven per cent savings on the $232 million Florida now spends on these prisons.
An annual savings of about $20 million-plus was looking better and better to lawmakers faced with a statewide deficit of more than $1 billion for this year alone. That kind of economy looked particularly succulent to Republican lawmakers who have generally had an affinity with private, for-profit prisons. Free enterprise and all that jazz, y'know.
Now, it hadn't been easy to get this legislation to the floor. On its first try, the bill ran smack into a lawsuit filed by the union representing some 4,000 state prison guards. They asserted that the prison privatization bill was unconstitutional because it was part of the state's general budget and not a stand-alone measure as the law requires. A judge agreed.
So it was back to square one for the private prisons. A new stand-alone bill was introduced. It was expected to pass without incident.
But a funny thing happened to the bill on its way to the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, a friend of for-profit prisons. Nine Republicans jumped ship.
Well, it wasn't for lack of intense lobbying by those in favor -- largely fiscal hawks and those who received substantial campaign contributions from private prison interests -- or those opposed -- the union, trying to protect 4,000 jobs, and lawmakers and public policy organizations who didn't think it was a good idea for private companies to run prisons, and who doubted that the promised savings would ever appear.
Sen. Mike Fasano, the Republican who led the charge against privatization, told James Rosico of the Associated Press that the bill was "bad public policy."
His reward? Losing the chairmanship of the Senate budget panel that oversees spending on prisons and the courts.
Some legislators simply felt that public safety, including corrections, shouldn't be contracted out. Others doubted that the state would ever see the promised savings. A delegation of state prison guards, sitting in the gallery, let loose a shout of joy.
Thus the largest prison privatization in US history crashed and burned,
But many familiar with Florida politics think this is only Round One. They expect prison privatization to come back to the legislative calendar in the near future.
The AP reports that Florida already has seven privately-run prisons.