Corporate Takeover of Florida Prisons Denied

by Mike Hall – Reposted from the AFL-CIO NOW Blog

A scheme to privatize Florida’s prisons failed (19-21) in the state Senate yesterday after a huge public outcry led by Florida working families, community and civil rights groups. The plan was backed by extremist Gov. Rick Scott (R), private prison companies and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), one of the key players in the drive to privatize prisons throughout the nation.

The corporate takeover would have cost 3,800 workers their jobs, and Florida AFL-CIO President Mike Williams says it would have “devastated small communities, working families’ economic stability and safety.”

The privatization bill was one of the largest efforts so far to give private corporations control of a state’s prison system. It would have turned over control of 27 state prisons and work camps in 18 south Florida counties to the GEO Group—formerly Wackenhut Corrections.

GEO is a major sponsor of ALEC, The Nation reported in August. ALEC has led the charge to privatize prisons by writing model legislation for its right-wing state legislature members to push in their states.

ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and Geo Group, the largest private prison firms in the country. An In These Times investigation last summer revealed that ALEC arranged secret meetings between Arizona’s state legislators and CCA to draft what became S.B. 1070, Arizona’s notorious immigration law, to keep CCA prisons flush with immigrant detainees. ALEC has proven expertly capable of devising endless ways to help private corporations benefit from the country’s massive prison population.

Click here for the full report.

St. Lucie County Sheriff Ken J. Mascara says prison privatization puts the public’s safety at risk. In a letter to state Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R), he writes:

In the continued race to the bottom, private prison contractors reduce pay, benefits and quality of personnel in the interest of slashing budgets; but as in most other areas of life, you get what you pay for. I know when protecting our families from the most heinous individuals in our society, I don’t want the guard who will work for the least pay—I want a professional who receives proper training, a reasonable wage and benefits and the security of knowing that the people of Florida, and its elected leaders, appreciate the value of the often thankless job they do.

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Gov. Scott Set to Hand Florida’s Prisons to Corporate America

by Donald Cohen, founder and executive director of In the Public Interest, a national resource center on privatization and responsible contracting. Reposted from the AFL-CIO NOW Blog

Florida Gov. Rick Scott and the Republican-controlled legislature are moving fast to privatize all 29 prison facilities in 18 counties in southern Florida.

Last year, the GOP prison privatization proposal was ruled unconstitutional because it was wrapped into a budget proposal, a violation of Florida laws that requires policy changes be in separate laws. Tallahassee Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that the lawmakers rushed the process.

The privatizers aren’t making the same mistake this time. Not only are they proposing to privatize the prisons but they are changing the law to be able to privatize any service as fast, as easily and as secretly as possible. Under the latest proposals, an agency would not have to report its privatization of a program or service until after the contract is signed. And they also would eliminate a current legal requirement to do a cost-benefit analysis before privatizing any government function.

In other words, don’t let the public know what you’re doing and don’t bother to find out the costs.

Scott, former CEO of hospital giant Columbia/HCA, came into office on a mission to privatize Florida government. Scott left HCA as the company was being investigated for the “biggest Medicare fraud case in U.S. history.”  Columbia/HCA ultimately paid a record $1.7 billion in fines, penalties and damages.

Scott has already proposed privatizing the state’s Medicaid system, state parkcampgrounds, the state’s three remaining public mental hospitals, three centers for the developmentally disabled and six veterans’ homes.

The two largest prison companies, Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group (formerly Wackenhut), are poised to strike, in what Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies calls, “an unprecedented” expansion of the use of private prisons that no other state has undertaken.

GEO has been a consistent force within Florida politics. GEO Group alone gave more than $400,000 to the party in the past election cycle. Geo Group‘s lobbyist, Brian Ballard, hosted Scott at his Tallahassee home to watch the Super Bowl. GEO Group and CCA donated nearly $1 million toward the Scott’s inauguration celebrations.

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The Year-Long GOP Obsession With Urine-Testing

In October we told you about the governors and legislators proposing mandatory urine testing in order to qualify for food stamps or welfare.

few weeks ago, we wrote about Rep. Jack Kingston from Georgia, who wants the unemployed to undergo mandatory drug testing to “qualify” for unemployment benefits.

The latest entrant into the drug testing wars is Michigan. From Huffington Post:

Officials in Michigan’s Department of Human Services want to bring back drug testing of welfare recipients, a controversial practice that Michigan courts struck down more than a decade ago. The new policy would differ from the one enacted under Republican Gov. John Engler in 1999, which required a urine test to apply for benefits and would have subjected recipients to random drug screenings.

and

Michigan state Rep. Jeff Farrington (R-Utica) introduced a bill on Dec. 13 that would require applicants take a drug test to qualify for FIA benefits. Under the proposed bill, which is still up for discussion, recipients who passed a drug screening would have the cost of the test deducted from their first benefits payment.

Great. Not only do they want to demonize the poor, they want the poor to pay for that demonization. Rep. Farrington should heed the lesson of Governor Rick Scott of Florida, whose misguided urine test policies lead to record low approval levels. From Mother Jones:

But with 96 percent of applicants passing the test with flying colors (and another 2 percent getting inconclusive results), the state is having to buy back a lot of clean pee: 11.5 gallons at $34,300 every month, assuming an average sample size of 1.5 ounces and and average test price of $35.

That’s spending an awful lot of taxpayer money just to harass poor people. It’s certainly not creating the big savings that Governor Scott promised his constituents.

I wrote in October:

On the one hand, we hear a lot of gnashing of teeth from DC about job creation, yet on the other, we have the ongoing blame being heaped upon those who aren’t able to find work and are living in poverty, as if being unemployed or poor were somehow voluntary.

It is deeply distressing to see this becoming a national trend.

Photo by micahb37 on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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Urine Big Trouble Now – More States Want to Follow Rick Scott’s Drug-Testing Lead

In September I wrote about states that were considering forcing people receiving welfare or food stamp benefits to undergo urine testing for drugs, in order to qualify for their benefits. Florida actually tried it, and has found that it isn’t exactly working out the way they’d hoped. In fact, it’s costing the state a lot of money. But, this hasn’t deterred those who are determined to wage war on the poor.

A new warrior has stepped forth. From the Huffington Post:

The bill by Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) would require unemployment claimants to pass a drug test if they are identified in an initial screening as having a high probability of drug use.

Yes, that’s right. He wants people who are collecting unemployment benefits from a system they’ve paid into, to take mandatory drug tests.

Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), said Wednesday that Republican legislation would “reform” unemployment insurance. “We are working on a bill to stop a tax hike, protect Social Security, reform unemployment insurance and create jobs,” Steel said.

It doesn’t seem to occur to these folks that if there were jobs, there would be fewer folks who are unemployed. They really work hard at having it both ways; decrying the lack of jobs, then blaming the unemployed for not working.

Kingston cited an overwhelming number of job applicants flunking drug tests as the rationale for his proposal.

“I had an employer tell me of an overwhelming response for job openings,” Kingston said in a statement. “There was just one problem: half the people who applied could not even pass a drug test.”

Last year Governor Nikki Hailey of South Carolina made a similar claim. It proved to be bogus. Governor Hailey had to admit that she’s made those comments based on erroneous information. Representative Kingston is refusing to provide the source for his claims.

From Kingston’s website:

At a series of listening sessions with business owners throughout the First District conducted earlier this year, Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA) heard repeatedly about barriers to job creation. While he heard many of the issues he expected like overly burdensome regulations and the pervasive uncertainty in the economy, one issue that was brought up in every meeting surprised him: abuse of unemployment insurance.

So, because people are allegedly abusing unemployment insurance business owners can’t create jobs? That doesn’t even make sense.

“My proposal strengthens the safety net and ensures it will be available to those who use it as a stepping stone back into the workforce,” Kingston said. “It does so without increasing federal spending or placing new, unfunded mandates on the states.”

So, preventing people from collecting unemployment benefits from a fund that they’ve paid into is his definition of strengthening the safety net? Ensuring that kids go hungry and may become homeless is a function of the safety net?

I vote we drug test Congressman Kingston. At about 8 pm, on any given night.

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Rick Scott’s Guide to Unpopularity

Florida Governor Rick Scott has achieved a historically low approval rating of 26 percent. How did he do it? Here’s our guide to being an incredibly unpopular state executive:

1.)    While campaigning, make sure to promise to take action on the most pressing issue on the minds of Americans: jobs. Declare unequivocally and repeatedly that you will create 700,000 jobs in 7 years, and make “Let’s get to work” your campaign slogan. That way, voters can feel a sense of betrayal and disappointment when you do nothing to follow through.

2.)    Start breaking promises right off the bat – voters love initiative! Despite a historic high level of unemployment in construction, reject federal money for a high speed rail project that would employ thousands of construction workers and engineers. Don’t give a good reason for your actions. That way, voters can assume you’re killing jobs for political reasons.

3.)    Has your state experienced a huge economic hit because of a man-made, preventable disaster recently, perhaps an oil spill? By all means, do not make any effort to hold the corporations behind that disaster accountable. Even if other governors of your own party are making such an effort, continue to have more sympathy for those corporations then your constituents.

4.)    One of the keys to being an unpopular governor is to demonize huge segments of your state’s population, and then watch it backfire. Here’s a good list to start from:

  • Firefighters and police officers
  • Students
  • College professors
  • Welfare recipients
  • People who want to vote
  • Teachers
  • People who enjoy parks
  • People with preexisting medical conditions
  • “Government”

5.)    Related: Fire lots of teachers. Voters love crowded classrooms.

6.)    Display your callous disregard for working families by raising the salaries of your personal staff while slashing wages for state employees.

7.)    Continue to tout your business background while doing everything you can to seed doubt about your understanding of economics. Bonus: Fail at basic math and attack public workers simultaneously.

8.)    While you’re ignoring the jobs crisis, try addressing some imaginary problems. Let your imagination run wild! Don’t stop at fighting imaginary voter fraud, that’s just Bad Governor 101. Search for oil in the Everglades! Fight imaginary drug use among welfare recipients! Spend as much taxpayer money as possible.

9.)    Establish a “jobs agency” that can’t keep track of its own spending. Voters love irony!

10.) Make lots of statements that are demonstrably false. These statements should concern topics a governor should be familiar with: regulations, budgets, spending, transportation, health care, and the geography of your state. (Bonus: Racial insensitivity.)

11.) Don’t forget your role: serving the needs of corporations and the super-wealthy. For instance, pass $2 billion in tax breaks targeting the wealthiest and lift regulations on property insurers. Announce plans to privatize as many things as you can.  Make sure your campaign donors coincidentally benefit from your policies. (Bonus: Wink at the taxpayers for footing the bill – they’re in on the joke!)

12.) At all times, lack compassion and understanding about the basic needs and priorities of your state. The majority of your constituents just want to find a decent job, put food on the table, afford health care when they get sick, pay bills on time, vote on Election Day, and make sure their children get an adequate education. Your job is to wake up every morning in your mansion, drive to work, and make sure all those things are as difficult as possible.

Got more to add to Rick Scott’s Guide to Popularity? Leave your suggestions in the comments, or tweet at us with the hashtag #RickScottFail.

Photo of Governor Rick Scott by Gage Skidmore on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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Coming Soon: Rick Scott’s Guide to Unpopularity

Rick Scott, the Governor of the State of Florida, has broken new ground. According to Public Policy Polling, he is once again the least popular governor in the country:

Florida’s Rick Scott has retaken the title of least popular governor in the country among the 36 on which PPP has polled this year.  His job performance mark has tanked from 36% approving and 52% disapproving when PPP last polled the state in September to 26-58 now, a decline of 16 points on the margin.  His greatest fall has been with his own party, which stands at 46-31, down 22 points.  Independents disapprove by a 30-55 margin.

More key numbers:

  • 66 percent of those who identify as political “moderates” disapprove of Scott. 34 percent of those who identify as “somewhat conservative” also disapprove.
  • 55 percent of Independents disapprove, and so do 31 percent of Republicans.
  • African-Americans, a sizable population in Florida, have truly soured on Rick Scott – only 5 percent approve versus 80 percent disapproving. 66 percent of Hispanics also disapprove.
  • In a hypothetical rematch with 2010 Democratic opponent Alex Sink, Scott would only receive 37 percent of the vote. Sink would net  48 percent of the crucial Independent vote, and 21 percent of Republicans would cross party lines instead of voting for Scott.

This level of poor job performance is even more impressive when you consider Scott’s competition:

  • Michigan’s Gov. Rick Snyder, who despite calling himself in favor of “small government” is wresting away local the power of local governments in his state;

So how did Scott do it? How did he manage to get nearly 3 out of every 4 Floridians to think he is bad at his job? We’ve prepared a little cheat sheet, in case you want to be a terrible governor at home. Stay tuned for Rick Scott’s Guide to Unpopularity!

Photo by juxtapose^esopatxuj on Flickr, via Creative Commons.

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Urine Trouble Now: How Radical Governors Are Wasting Your Money on Drug Tests

At a time when unemployment nationwide is still at the official rate of 9.1 percent and poverty and homelessness are on the rise, a number of states have decided that those folks receiving any kind of benefit -food stamps,unemployment, welfare, public housing, or even job training-should have to undergo urine testing in order to qualify.

From the New York Times:

This year, 36 states considered drug testing for recipients of cash assistance from the major welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; 12 states proposed it for unemployment insurance; and some also considered making it a requirement for food stamps, home heating assistance and other programs.

The New Hampshire legislature considered such a measure last session. A bill was filed that called for random urine testing of food stamp recipients. When it turned out that the testing would cost New Hampshire taxpayers between $3 and $7 million annually, while saving the state absolutely nothing, the bill went away.

This is the kind of stereotyping we saw back in the 1980′s: the welfare queen in her Cadillac. It’s part of the ongoing criminalization of poverty. There is no proof that folks relying on public benefits use drugs at a higher rate than other groups(like, say, Congressmen, who also rely on public benefits. Why aren’t they being drug tested?

The state of Florida did pass a law back in June that forces welfare recipients to pass a urine test. It doesn’t seem to be working out the way that Governor Scott said it would. From Mother Jones:

The way it was supposed to work, according to Scott and other supporters, was this: Everyone who took the test at a state-approved private lab (PDF) would have to pay for it out of pocket. (Never mind where a poor Floridian is supposed to scrape together 25 to 30 percent of their monthly benefit on their own.) If they tested negative for illegal drugs, they’d be reimbursed for the urinalysis, anywhere from $10 to $82, in their welfare check. Drug addicts would be out the testing cost and barred from receiving benefits for a year. The theory, then, was that the presumably huge population of drug-addled free riders would be kicked off the bus, and Florida would reap the savings. (The plan was briefly held up when it came to light that a health care firm started by Scott, Solantic, could get a contract for the urinalysis.)

But with 96 percent of applicants passing the test with flying colors (and another 2 percent getting inconclusive results), the state is having to buy back a lot of clean pee: 11.5 gallons at $34,300 every month, assuming an average sample size of 1.5 ounces and and average test price of $35.

In short, this law has only served to demonize the poor, while costing the state money. From the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU):

The Department of Children and Families’ central region has tested 40 applicants since the law went into effect six weeks ago, and of those 40 applicants, 38 tested negative for drugs. The cost to the state of Florida to reimburse those 38 individuals who tested negative was at least $1,140 over the course of six weeks. Meanwhile, denying benefits to the two applicants who tested positive will save Florida less than $240 a month.

On the one hand, we hear a lot of gnashing of teeth from DC about job creation, yet on the other, we have the ongoing blame being heaped upon those who aren’t able to find work and are living in poverty, as if being unemployed or poor were somehow voluntary.

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Florida Rep. Wants to Bring Back “Dwarf Tossing”

A Florida state legislator has some ideas on job creation for his district: He’s filed a bill to repeal the state’s ban on…dwarf tossing.

Dwarf tossing was the bar fad that came along after wet t-shirt contests and mechanical bull riding, back in the late 1980′s. The activity was banned in Florida in 1989, after it became controversial. The issue of the safety of those being tossed became something of a national concern.

From The Current:

On Monday, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, filed HB 4063 to repeal the law. He says he doesn’t condone the dwarf tossing but he thinks the prohibition takes away freedoms and is against the American way.

“To me it’s an archaic kind of Big Brother law that says, ‘We don’t like that activity,’ ” Workman said. “Well, there is nothing immoral or illegal about that activity. All we really did by passing that law was take away some employment from some little people.”

According to the dwarfism advocacy group, Little People of America, this practice puts people who have dwarfism at serious risk of back and neck injuries. The group also finds that dwarf tossing is a demeaning and dehumanizing activity.

Asked about the demeaning nature of the activity, Workman said Tuesday, “What about the one employed by it?”

Great. Would we bring back child labor, while we’re at it? Would we strap Workman into a harness and toss him?

I suspect this won’t be the kind of “job creation” that lowers Florida’s unemployment numbers. The Republican Party proves once again that they are without any ideas on how to actually create jobs.

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