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Fla. judge skeptical about prison privatization

Associated Press Modified: November 19, 2012 at 3:31 pm •  Published: November 19, 2012

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A skeptical judge on Monday raised questions about whether it was legal for the state to move ahead with a plan to privatize nearly 3,000 health care jobs in Florida's prisons.

Circuit Judge John Cooper spent more than two hours Monday hearing a lawsuit from three public employee unions that challenged a move by the state's prison agency to have private companies take over inmate health care.

Cooper did not rule, saying he needed more information before he can decide whether an obscure legislative panel had the authority to sign off on the privatization proposal in September.

The Legislative Budget Commission granted the Department of Corrections permission to spend nearly $58 million to pay the private companies.

Lawyers for the unions contend the department needed permission from the entire Legislature. Lawmakers earlier this year, though, narrowly rejected a proposal to privatize more than two dozen prisons in South Florida.

Alma Gonzalez, special counsel for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said after the hearing that the state could not "play it fast and loose" with the livelihoods of state workers.

Cooper said his initial reading of state law suggested that in "plain English" the panel can tweak the existing state budget but that a "small group of legislators" cannot enact new policy.

Lawyers for the state and one of the companies seeking to take over inmate health care, argued the panel's approval was legal.

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