Corrections Still Impacting FL Budget Debate

The Bradenton Herald reports:

Racing against the clock, legislators labored Sunday to settle spending differences and agree on a $70 billion budget with five days left in the session. They made progress, but today will be another marathon day as lawmakers left some of the most contentious issues to the final hours…

Following questions by Democrats, lawmakers removed budget language that would have allowed the Department of Corrections to move money between budget categories “for outsourcing efforts.”

In the most divisive vote of the 2012 session, the Senate voted 21-19 to reject a proposed privatization of all prisons in 18 South Florida counties. Some anti-privatization lawmakers and lobbyists were on high alert for a possible last-minute maneuver to keep privatization alive, but it didn’t happen.

Republicans said they were not giving the prison system authority to expand privatization, and when Senate Democratic Leader Nan Rich of Weston asked why the language was needed, Republicans quickly eliminate it.

“The budget is really pretty thin on cash,” said Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “I don’t think anybody’s quite satisfied, but I think we’re making good progress on a budget that will work for Florida.”

While the 18-county effort has garnered all the headlines, the state Department of Corrections is currently engaged in a less publicized reform effort to partner with the private sector to improve healthcare delivery within the state’s 100,000-inmate system. As I explained last week in a commentary entitled, “Florida Correctional Healthcare Reform in Jeopardy“:

The appeal of the legislature’s correctional healthcare reform effort is simple: private companies that compete to provide medical and mental health services to inmates can save the state money, provide high quality care, and give policymakers more accurate understanding of what it costs to run the state’s correctional system. In other words, competition disrupts an otherwise stagnant bureaucracy to find better ways to do things.

However like the aforementioned 18-county program, this innovative approach to correctional healthcare service delivery is facing legal challenges after the Florida Nurses Association filed a lawsuit in Leon County Circuit Court hoping to stop reform. The critics are ultimately on the wrong side of this issue. As I explain in the piece:

Government officials around the world are partnering with the private sector because it works. By abandoning the single-provider government service model, and embracing competition, policymakers have witnessed improvements in both cost savings and quality of service. Indiana, for example, has saved tens of millions of dollars in correctional healthcare costs through privatization, and corrections officials there have used privatization to lower food service costs by nearly one third.

The piece concludes:

Improving Florida’s correctional system is a daunting challenge and no one action can accomplish this goal. However, policymakers have already taken the first step by encouraging a culture of reform. Allowing private companies to partner in providing correctional healthcare is a common sense solution that’s as symbolically significant as it is substantive. The state Department of Corrections is exploring sensible new ways of doing the public’s work, something that should be encouraged, not stifled.

Read the full commentary available online here. For more of Reason’s work on corrections in Florida see here, here and here.