TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- A judge on Tuesday blocked plans to privatize health care services in three of Florida's four prison system regions, but the state said it would appeal.
Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled that funding for such major policy changes must be approved by the full Legislature rather than a panel of just 14 lawmakers.
The privatization plans were challenged by three unions representing some 2,600 state employees who stand to lose their jobs after prison officials obtained approval for the outsourcing from the Legislative Budget Commission.
"It is the duty of the full Legislature, not a small group of select legislators, to make policy decisions on spending," Cooper wrote.
The Tallahassee-based judge noted state law gives the commission the ability to make "limited adjustments to the budget" rather than "new policy/spending priority decisions that could have been but were not passed by the full Legislature."
"This is a precedent-setting decision," said Alma Gonzalez, a lawyer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. She said it shows "the governor cannot play fast and loose with the state constitution."
Cooper ruled the Department of Corrections, which is under Gov. Rick Scott, cannot outsource in the three regions north of Palm Beach County because the Legislature failed to include them in a budget provision that provided funding for the Southern Florida Region. The judge said the department can proceed with outsourcing only in that region.
The agency expected the contracts to save money, and state officials said the ruling would result in a budget shortfall.
"This ruling is wrong and puts in jeopardy nearly $90 million over the next two years that could be used to fund critical priorities - including increasing K-12 education funding," Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said. "We are working with the Department of Corrections to appeal the decision and protect hundreds of other state jobs that the department could be forced to eliminate if they lose nearly $90 million in expected savings."
The decision invalidates a five-year contract the agency had signed with Brentwood, Tenn.-based Corizon Inc. for the other three regions. The department is negotiating a similar contract with Wexford Health Sources Inc. of Pittsburgh for a South Florida contract.
The state budget for the 2011-12 fiscal year included a similar provision for the other three regions but it expired on June 30.
"The ruling runs counter to the intent of the Florida state legislature, leaves the status of hundreds of dedicated Department of Corrections employees in limbo, and will more than likely cost the taxpayers of Florida tens of millions of dollars," Corizon said in a statement. The company said it's ready to offer jobs to displaced state workers if the issue ultimately is resolved in favor of outsourcing.
Cooper's ruling will automatically be stayed pending appeal, but Gonzalez said the unions will ask him to lift it.
The outsourcing also was challenged by the Federation of Physicians and Dentists/Alliance of Healthcare and Professional Employees and the Florida Nurses Association.
They had urged Cooper, as well, to bar privatization in all four regions based on a state law saying the department can outsource services it is unable to provide in its own facilities. That wouldn't be the case under the contracts with Corizon and Wexford.
Cooper wrote that law does not override a separate statute allowing health care privatization if it saves the state money. He also found the latter law is not limited to contracts with nonprofit providers.
Tom Brooks, another union lawyer, acknowledged that their victory on the legislative budgeting issue may be temporary.
"Obviously, the Legislature can come back and do what the judge said that they didn't do," Brooks said.
He pointed out the same scenario unfolded after another Tallahassee judge blocked the privatization of nearly 30 entire prisons in the South Florida region. Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford ruled that lawmakers should have passed a stand-alone law rather than ordering the outsourcing through the budget.
A bill that would have done so then failed to pass in the Senate.
"It didn't fly," Brooks said. "That's what needs to happen" in the health care case.