TALLAHASSEE — A long-running push by the administration of Florida Gov. Rick Scott to privatize thousands of prison jobs could soon be headed back to court, marking yet another constitutional clash for the Republican governor.
Florida’s prison’s agency has asked a legislative panel to approve spending nearly $58 million in order to privatize prison health care operations by January. The move could affect up to nearly 3,000 employees statewide.
But the union that represents state workers contends that the Legislative Budget Commission cannot legally make such a large change to the state’s nearly $70 billion state budget. That role is left to the entire Legislature, said Tom Brooks, an attorney for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Brooks said the union will sue if the budget panel approves the privatization plan at its Wednesday meeting.
State legislators back in 2011 had previously approved the privatization effort but they tucked it into the overall state budget. That move sparked a court fight, but a judge this summer declared the case over because the outsourcing provision had expired at the end of the June. That’s when the state’s fiscal year ended.
“This is just a back door attempt to revive (the provision),” Brooks said.
Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich, D-Weston, agrees with the union that the Scott administration and the legislative panel are overstepping their authority.
“It has a certain role, one of making limited adjustments in the budget, not creating a policy change,” Rich said.
House and Senate leaders did not respond directly for comment on the lawsuit threat.
But the Florida Department of Corrections, pointing to another section of state law, contends it can move ahead with the privatization plan without legislative approval. The agency only needs the approval of the budget panel in order to pay for it.
Ann Howard, a spokeswoman for the department, says that if the state does not privatize its health care operations for nearly 100,000 inmates it will create a deficit in the state’s prison budget by more than $60 million.
The agency says that the deficit will be lowered to about $6 million if the privatization plan goes ahead.
“This is common sense math,” Howard said. “We have to be responsible. The choice is obvious.”
The department already has selected two companies to handle health care services. The state picked Pittsburgh-based Wexford Health Sources for the southern part of the state and Corizon Inc. of Brentwood, Tenn., for other regions.