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.
The hearing is the latest go-round over prison privatization that's been the source of ongoing friction between Gov. Rick Scott's administration and unions.
Legislators in 2011 approved the health care privatization but tucked it into the overall budget. That move sparked a court fight, but a judge this summer declared the case over because the outsourcing provision expired at the end of the June, when the state's fiscal year ended.
But the department contends another law lets it move ahead without legislative approval. The agency said it only needed the budget panel's approval to pay for it.
Corrections officials previously said if the state does not privatize health care for nearly 100,000 inmates it will create more than a $60 million deficit in the department's budget.
The department has signed a five-year contract with Brentwood, Tenn.-based Corizon for prisons north of Palm Beach County, displacing about 1,800 state workers. The agency is still negotiating with Wexford Health Sources Inc., headquartered in Pittsburgh, for a South Florida contract.
The department advised Corizon, when the contract was signed, not to hire displaced state workers until litigation is resolved, said agency spokeswoman Ann Howard.
Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout