Employees in Jefferson County, Fla., can exhale for a moment as the 2012 legislative session continues. A plan to create the largest private prison system in the United States is facing stiff opposition in the legislature.
Last week, the House of Representatives voted unanimously to move nearly $10 million around in the budget to keep Jefferson County Institution open.
Privatization could save the state more than $30 million, but it risks putting many prison employees out of work. The Jefferson County Correctional Institution is the largest employer in the county.
Lawmakers are divided, mostly along party lines.
Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos believes the vote will end in a tie, forcing the legislature to cut funds from other parts of the budget.
“That means we might have to take a little more from schools or healthcare or other benefits packages for state employees,” said Haridopolos. “Everything is on the table when people can’t make tough decisions on one issue.”
Supporters of privatization, like Gov. Rick Scott, also a Republican, argue that handing prisons over to private companies would ease strain on the state’s $69 billion budget, saving money in a struggling economy.
Some democrats oppose privatization. As with Scott’s bid last year to mandate drug-testing for welfare recipients, this move has little democratic support.
For Jefferson County, prison privatization would be devastating. Some legislators argue the number of jobs at stake and the benefits that will be lost outweigh the potential savings.
“We fire a lot of people throughout this state,” said Sen. Christopher Smith, D-Broward. “Once we privatize these prisons, a lot of those prison workers will lose their jobs.”
In other counties in Florida, privatization would not hurt workers as much.
Employees hired by these private companies would lose benefits reserved for state workers. “They are not going to hire them all back because private companies are trying to make money,” said Smith. “The way they make money is to cut your cost, so instead of 10 guards, they may only have eight and they still won’t have the same retirement or health benefits they had with the state.”
Most senators feel prison privatization will hurt Florida residents rather than help them. Although private companies operate on smaller budgets, the employees at these prisons’ lives may never be the same.
“When they get underpaid, they go back to the public money to go on Medicaid or Medicare instead of having private health insurance,” said Smith. “Now they are back on public health insurance so it’s costing us money again.”