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“Scott plan to cut jail budget called unrealistic”

Scott plan to cut jail budget called unrealistic

TALLAHASSEE — Rick Scott’s plan to curtail state
spending and create 700,000 new jobs includes slashing $1 billion from
the prison budget by cutting salaries, reducing health care costs and
expanding inmate-run vegetable farms.

But people who know how the corrections system works call the
Republican candidate for governor’s plan a "hoax” and a "shell game.”
The Florida Department of Corrections is the nation’s third-largest
prison system with more than 100,000 inmates in 139 facilities.

Scott’s proposed cut represents more than a third of the agency’s $2.4 billion budget.

Experts who dissected Scott’s plan for the Times/Herald include James
McDonough, a former corrections secretary under a Republican governor;
state Sen. Victor Crist, R-Tampa, who for years helped craft prison
budgets, and David Murrell, leader of the statewide prison guards’
union. The union supports Scott’s Democratic opponent, Alex Sink.

"We’re going to benchmark what other states are doing,” Scott said Wednesday in Tampa.

"There’s things such as what Texas does. They have the prisoners grow
their own food. You just look at the layers of management and things
like that . . . We shouldn’t be more extensive than other states.”

The Republican candidate’s cost-cutting ideas have sent shock waves
through the prison work force at a time of near-record unemployment in
Florida, especially for lower-income families who represent the vast
majority of prison employees.

"It would be devastating,” said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman for the prison system. "You would have to close prisons.”

Scott’s plan has angered the politically influential union that
represents correctional officers. The Police Benevolent Association
months ago backed Sink and now has another reason to try to keep Scott
from winning.

"It’s a total hoax,” PBA executive director Murrell said of Scott’s
plan. "There’s no way he can do that unless he lets a whole bunch of
prisoners out of prisons.”

In his campaign literature, Scott proposes to model Florida after Texas by "reducing per-prisoner costs to Texas’ level.”

That worries the PBA, because Texas pays a first-year prison guard
about $3,000 a year less than Florida’s starting salary of $31,000.

In its zeal to bash Scott, the PBA issued misleading information
about the candidate. In a lengthy e-mail to members, a union leader said
Scott wants to cut pension benefits and stop tying raises to inflation.
It’s not true, and even Murrell acknowledged that some of the e-mail’s
language was unsubstantiated or poorly worded.

Still, the union said Scott has emphasized cutting state jobs so much that its fears are well-grounded.

Scott promises voters he will cut the state work force by 5 percent
and one of every four state employees works in corrections. Even the
suggestion of closing a prison sets off economic fears because many
prisons are in small towns where they are a major employer.

Scott’s plan also would require prisons to grow more of their own
food for inmates to eat, but prison officials say that would provide
minor savings.

The agency fired two private food service vendors two years ago and now cooks all prison meals in house to save money.

"I think he’s off base,” said former corrections secretary James
McDonough, who served for two years under Republican Gov. Jeb Bush.

Calling Scott’s set of numbers "a shell game,” McDonough said the
daily meal cost per inmate is now $2.27 and he can’t see it getting much
lower.

Scott’s top economic advisor, who helped write the prison plan, noted
that Scott does not have the resources to assemble a comprehensive
budget plan.

"These are ways of highlighting the beginning of an accountability
budget review,” said advisor Donna Arduin, who served as Jeb Bush’s
budget director. "This is the beginning of a process, not the end.”

Florida officials say the agency’s per diem cost has risen 5.7
percent over the past decade, a period in which the total inmate
population rose 46 percent.

Corrections officials point out that they have had to withstand
several rounds of cuts in recent years due to revenue shortfalls,
including a $68 million cut this year from 2009. But the inmate
population continues to grow.

State Sen. Victor Crist, a Tampa Republican who for years has been in
charge of crafting the prison budget, says further cuts in prison
spending could pose safety hazards.

"It’s a very lofty plan. I would like to see how it would work,”
Crist said. "I would be concerned about public risks. At this point, we
have made the cuts that are possible without putting the public at
risk.”

Union head Murrell said Scott is playing fast and loose with numbers, and people’s lives.

"The way he uses figures is like what George Bush Sr. used to call
voodoo economics,” Murrell said. "He thinks if he runs enough ads he
can convince people that’s the truth.”