THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, June 5, 2013..........A unanimous three-judge appeals panel threw out a circuit court decision blocking privatization of inmate health-care services, a victory for the state in its long-running battle against unions to contract out more prison operations.
The ruling Wednesday would allow the state to push ahead with the rewarding of prison-health contracts to Corizon, Inc., in the central and northern areas of Florida.
The original ruling by Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper had already cleared the state to move forward with a contract with Wexford Health Sources, Inc., for the region covering roughly the bottom third of the state.
Cooper ruled that the Legislative Budget Commission, a 14-member panel charged with overseeing spending amendments when lawmakers are not in session, went too far in approving the contracts for the other areas because that privatization was not specifically mentioned in the state budget. It was seen as a potential precedent-setting ruling on the power of the LBC.
But the 1st District Court of Appeal said Cooper was reading the budget too narrowly when he said that privatizing health services in the the central and northern regions was changing policy and was more than a limited tweak to the budget -- both things the LBC isn't allowed to do.
"On both requirements, the LBC has expertise as an entity composed exclusively of legislators that is charged with the inherently legislative function of appropriations," Judge Stephanie Ray wrote for the DCA. "Given the LBC’s expertise and unique role within the Legislature, the LBC is entitled to deference in administering its budget-adjustment authority."
Ray also wrote that a state law allowing the Department of Corrections to privatize some health-care services and provisions in previous budgets and the spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1 all suggested the Legislature wants to contract out the services.
"Outside the [budget], however, there is ample evidence, not only that the department was authorized to privatize inmate health services, but that the Legislature intends for such privatization to occur," she wrote.
The LBC voted in September to approve an amendment to the current budget, which expires June 30, shifting money around to allow DOC to continue its privatization push. Opponents said the full Legislature would have to approve the decision to contract out the services.
The win for the state comes after other defeats on a push by Republican leaders and, at times, the Department of Corrections to privatize prison services and help reduce the state budget.
"We appreciate the ruling," said Ann Howard, a spokeswoman for the department, in an email. "It will help save taxpayer money as we move forward, per the Legislature and now, the court."
Alma Gonzalez, special counsel for AFSCME Council 79 -- one of the unions that challenged the privatization -- said that new language in the upcoming 2013-14 budget likely would have meant the lawsuit would become moot once the new spending plans kicks in, though she didn't rule out an appeal.
She also said the state could have been spared the costs of a lawsuit if lawmakers had approved the prison privatization that way in the first place.
"The fact is that the citizens of the state of Florida, the taxpayers of the state of Florida have paid and paid and paid again to teach the governor to respect the Constitution," Gonzalez said.