Offering a major concession, the Florida Senate on Saturday agreed to a House plan to shorten prison guards’ daily work hours, as lawmakers negotiated a state budget that could reach $100 billion.
However, the Senate’s call to shutter one state prison remained unresolved in the early stages of formal budget talks.
Meanwhile, Gov. Ron DeSantis might not get additional money for an economic-development fund he controls, as the Senate agreed not to put money into the Job Growth Grant Fund.
House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Chairman Jayer Williamson, a Pace Republican who is negotiating economic-development issues, said the fund has about $24.4 million left over from 2019.
“Maybe the best use of dollars will be spending what they still (have) to spend over the next several years,” Williamson said.
In January, DeSantis requested $50 million for the fund, created for job training and public infrastructure projects, when he proposed a $96.6 billion state budget for the upcoming 2021-2022 fiscal year. Last month, he raised the possibility of putting another $150 million into the fund from federal stimulus money that Florida will get through the American Rescue Plan Act.
DeSantis vetoed money for the Job Growth Grant Fund last year as the state grappled with reduced tax revenues because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The work shifts of correctional officers and the possibility of prison closures have been closely watched issues as the House and Senate have worked on plans for a criminal-justice budget.
With Saturday the first full day of a formal budget negotiations, the Senate offered to cede to the House on what Corrections Secretary Mark Inch has called the “lynchpin of our efforts to address our agency’s most significant challenges” --- switching prison guards’ daily work shifts from 12-hour shifts to 8.5-hour shifts, a program already in effect at roughly a third of state-run prisons.
Inch has pitched the shift-hour changes, vehemently opposed by the union that represents correctional officers, as a panacea for woes plaguing the Department of Corrections, which houses more than 70,000 inmates and employs more than 24,000 workers.
The expansion of the shift-hour reductions approved by the Senate on Saturday would result in about two-thirds of prison employees working 8.5-hour shifts.
Inch, a former head of the federal Bureau of Prisons and a retired U.S. Army major general, argues that the shift-hour reduction would help the department alleviate its high turnover rate, recruit new employees and ensure critical posts are manned.
Lawmakers last year ordered the shift changes at 17 prisons, with the “pilot program” included in budget fine print known as proviso language.
The shift changes are the subject of two active lawsuits filed by the Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents correctional officers. The union has fought against the shift reductions since they were first initiated in 2018 by former Gov. Rick Scott, who is now a U.S. senator.
The union points to data that show job-vacancy rates remain high at prisons where the work-hour reductions have been implemented.
Correctional officers are “disappointed” that the Senate is going along with the expansion, Matt Puckett, executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said.
“The data from the 'pilot' is pointing in the wrong direction. Officer vacancy rates are growing in 13 of the 17 prisons switched in September. We really wish the Legislature would pump the brakes on this rush to convert more facilities until we have more than seven months of data,” Puckett said in a text message Saturday. He suggested that legislative researchers could “perform a study to give everyone an independent review” of the shift reductions.
But Senate Criminal and Civil Justice Appropriations Chairman Keith Perry, a Gainesville Republican who is a lead Senate negotiator, said staffing shortages are a system-wide problem.
“What I have seen is across the board, it’s not one prison. Every single prison continues to struggle with vacancies. We just can’t fill the positions,” he told The News Service of Florida.
Perry said the Senate is relying on Inch’s recommendation, noting that the secretary is a “retired two-star general” who’s “put a lot of effort” into the agency’s operations.
“This is a guy that absolutely doesn’t need this job, but he’s put his heart and soul into it,” Perry said.
Senate leaders also have looked at prison closures as a way to revamp the corrections system. An original Senate budget proposal called for the elimination of 6,000 prison beds and the demolition of four prisons by the end of the year.
The Senate eased off that plan, approving a budget plan this month that would require one 1,500-bed prison to close. The budget plan did not include funding for the 1,500 prison beds.
During a budget conference meeting Saturday, a proposal offered by Senate negotiators included money for the prison beds but did not back away from the proposal to shut down a prison.
The House’s budget plan, meanwhile, would allow the Department of Corrections to consider shuttering two prisons but would first require the agency to submit a “comprehensive plan” for the closures to legislative leaders and DeSantis by Dec. 31.
Inch has opposed prison closures, but Senate leaders have pointed to a decline in the state’s prison population --- which dropped dramatically amid the pandemic --- to defend closures.
“We all know that right now there’s --- if you look at every prison we have --- there are hundreds of dorms that are shut down. And so instead of continuing to take a prison that could hold 1,500 people and downsize it to 1,000, is it more efficient to just close one, two, three, whatever,” Perry said in a phone interview shortly after Saturday’s conference meeting.
The budget conference process began Friday night and is expected to lead to a roughly $100 billion budget for the fiscal year that will start July 1. Committees on specific areas of the budget --- such as criminal and civil justice and transportation, tourism and economic development --- began meeting Saturday.
Issues that the committees can’t resolve will be kicked upstairs Monday night to Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and House Appropriations Chairman Jay Trumbull, R-Panama City.
If Stargel and Trumbull are unable to agree, issues will go to Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor.
Because of a legally required 72-hour “cooling off” period, the budget needs to be distributed to lawmakers on April 27 if the legislative session is going to end as scheduled April 30.
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