by Randall C. Berg, Jr.
On February 1, Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R- Melbourne) removed Senator Mike Fasano (R-New Port Richey) from his position as chairman of the Budget Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations. His transgression? Apparently an unforgivable sin: Senator Fasano refused to put the demands of the Senate leadership above the interests of the people in his district he was elected to represent.
In other words, Fasano voiced strong opposition to a pending bill, SB2038, that would privatize 27 state correctional facilities – an unprecedented expansion of prison privatization on a scale that has never been attempted in the United States.
But in removing Senator Fasano from his committee leadership position for refusing to toe the party line, Senator Haridopolos himself crossed the line – the line of decency. He violated the basic expectation that our elected officials will not face political retribution for doing what they believe is best for their constituents.
Senator Haridopolos’ actions might be justified if there were no controversy concerning prison privatization. But there is a great deal of legitimate disagreement about the benefits of privatizing prisons. There is no evidence that privatized prisons are better at housing or rehabilitating prisoners, and because private prisons must generate profit they have an incentive to cut costs – and thus corners – that can endanger public safety.
Senator Haridopolos defended his decision to strip Senator Fasano of his committee position, saying he “was not rowing in the same direction” as the Senate leadership. Also, Governor Scott said he was “extremely disappointed” because some senators, including Fasano, would not vote in favor of the prison privatization bill.
Their outrage would be more convincing had they not received substantial donations from private prison companies, which stand to profit from the privatization bill that both Haridopolos and Scott are pushing so strongly. GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) gave $30,000 to Governor Scott’s inaugural fund, while from 2009 to 2011 Senator Haridopolos accepted thousands of dollars from three private prison companies and their executives.
Senator Haridopolos cited cost savings as a rationale for supporting SB2038. However, the estimated savings should the prison privatization plan go forward, as calculated by the Senate Budget Committee, would be $16.5 million annually – or less than 1 percent of Florida’s $2.2 billion corrections budget. And to achieve that 1 percent savings, the bill would put 3,800 state employees out of work at a time of high unemployment and would turn 27 state correctional facilities over to for-profit companies that answer not to the taxpayers but to private shareholders.
The citizens of Florida elect their senators to represent them, not to blindly follow the agenda of a political party and certainly not to represent the special interests of private companies that try to buy influence through campaign donations. After all, the ability to independently vote one’s conscience is the hallmark of our democracy, while bowing to party leaders is at best oligarchy and at worst a dictatorship.
Senator Fasano is that great rarity: An honorable politician with a conscience who stood up to protect the interests of the citizens he represents. The Senate leadership would do better to emulate him, rather than bully and punish him.
Randy C. Berg, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Florida Justice Institute, a not-for-profit public interest law firm that works to improve the administration of justice to all Florida residents. He is a former Chairman of the Corrections Committee of The Florida Bar and served on Governor Chiles’ Criminal Justice Transition Task Force.
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