Explosive prison growth demands a smarter approach

March 13, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Daytona Beach News Journal

Recently two important developments occurred in the ongoing struggle to keep Floridians safe without breaking the bank.

Department of Corrections Secretary Michael Crews disclosed that his department’s annual deficit had ballooned from about $36 million at the start of the fiscal year to more than $95 million. This explosive growth of red ink was based on decisions both within and beyond DOC’s purview, and legislators involved in the appropriations process expressed understandable concern.

The previous day, the Florida Smart Justice Alliance held a press conference to unveil legislation to increase treatment services and work release opportunities for prison inmates preparing to return to society. At the press conference, the question was appropriately asked how this can be accomplished in light of DOC’s huge deficit. The answer is surprisingly simple: By dealing with many inmates’ problems before they re-enter society, we can reduce their tendency toward recidivism — which saves money and reduces future crime victims.

The Alliance has presented a proposal that will not cost any new tax dollars and will in fact save $15 million, money that can be used to help reduce DOC’s deficit. The plan involves closing a $39-million-a-year prison and shifting its 2,100 beds to provide treatment and work release. This would cost taxpayers just $24 million, producing a savings of $15 million and improving public safety by making it less likely those offenders will commit future crimes.

Predictably, there was opposition from those who prefer the status quo. They point out that Florida’s crime and recidivism rates are lower than before, and suggest that our state’s historic “tough on crime” approach has been sufficient. While these rates have indeed showed improvement, they are not what they could be. And, as DOC’s enormous deficit shows, the cost of this approach remains exorbitant.

Here’s what DOC’s own recidivism report tell us: About 33,000 inmates are released from Florida prisons every year once they have served at least 85 percent of their sentences — including most murderers, rapists and sex offenders. Meanwhile, about 32,000 offenders are sent to prison each year. Of these “new” inmates, 14,000 — more than two in five — are reoffenders, which means they have created at least that many new crime victims.

Of the 33,000 released each year, only 23.4 percent receive any treatment for underlying issues like substance abuse or mental health problems. Even fewer earn a GED. And only a miniscule number receive some type of government-issued ID card, an important step to landing a decent job.

DOC releases prisoners at 12:10 a.m. each morning with nothing but $50 cash and a bus ticket to the closest city. Yet somehow we expect them to be successful on the outside and maintain law-abiding lives. Is this realistic? Clearly not — yet all of us, as taxpayers, continue to pay for this never-ending cycle in the mistaken belief that doing otherwise would sacrifice public safety. Hogwash!

Since 1985, nonprofit providers have been treating, educating and finding jobs for inmates who are nearing the end of their sentences. According to DOC’s own statistics, the overall recidivism rate for nonprofits is 18 percent, significantly lower than the 30 percent rate of DOC-operated programs. The difference is because nonprofit providers have more intensive treatment protocols while department-operated programs spend much less on the one thing that has proven to be effective: treatment.

DOC pays the nonprofits less than it pays itself, so in order to stay afloat the nonprofits are strongly incentivized to help inmates find jobs so they can then get reimbursed for room and board. DOC-operated programs have no such incentive, leading to higher costs and lower results.

For the 2013 legislative session, the Smart Justice Alliance has proposed a dramatically innovative concept that involves no new tax dollars, a way to help reduce DOC’s deficit to the tune of $15 million, and an evidence-based model that will result in fewer crime victims and lower recidivism. The only real question is why anyone — the governor, the Legislature or the Department of Corrections — would oppose this smart, sensible and cost-saving idea.

Better handling of non-violent felons in Florida

March 13, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

From the Sun Sentinel

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is promoting legislation this year to enhance public safety while saving millions of tax dollars. Yet special interests have distorted the debate. It’s time to set the record straight.

Non-violent felons make up a significant portion of Florida’s inmate population. Most have substance abuse or mental health problems or both. They’re not hard-core criminals who happen to use drugs; they are drug addicts who commit crimes to feed their habits.

Without the tools to live successfully in the world, these inmates are likely to turn back to crime; 27 percent return to prison within three years.

Smart Justice is about making all of us safer by providing these inmates things like behavioral health-care treatment in prison, help getting a GED, training in job skills and help obtaining a government-issued identification card so they can get jobs. What the Smart Justice Alliance is not about is releasing prisoners early or weakening the requirement that felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.

The Alliance recently presented a proposal to the Florida Legislature to provide such treatment. Opponents came out of the woodwork with a barrage of misinformation.

They said these prisoners would not be treated in prisons (false) and that treatment programs would not be staffed with certified law enforcement officers (also false). They said the Florida Department of Corrections would no longer control which prisoners receive treatment (false). They said our proposal is prison privatization (false), and the treatment regimens are not successful (false).

The truth is that under our proposal, all prisoners would be housed in one of three secure state prisons. These facilities, constructed with taxpayer-financed bonds, have sat unused for almost a year.

Unlike what our opponents say, the DOC will still perform each inmate’s initial assessment and determine which felons receive treatment. Finally, critics suggest these ideas reflect a “soft” approach to crime. A plan that steers low-level offenders away from crime and frees up resources to concentrate on more serious criminals is not soft on crime.

Smart Justice legislation: A better approach for Florida’s citizens, taxpayers

February 7, 2013  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

The Florida Smart Justice Alliance is promoting legislation this year designed to enhance public safety while saving millions of tax dollars per year. Yet special interests have distorted the public debate with misinformation, and it’s time to set the record straight.

Non-violent felons make up a significant portion of Florida’s inmate population. Most of them have substance abuse or mental health problems, or both. They’re not hard-core criminals who happen to use drugs, they are drug addicts who commit crimes in order to feed their habits.

Without the tools to live successfully out in the world, these inmates are likely to turn back to crime – and 27 percent of them return to prison within three years, where they again are a drain on society.

Smart Justice is about making all of us safer by providing these inmates things like behavioral health care treatment in prison, help getting a GED, training in productive job skills, and help obtaining a government-issued ID card so they can get a job. What the Smart Justice Alliance is NOT about is releasing prisoners early or weakening the requirement that felons serve at least 85 percent of their sentences in prison.

The Alliance recently presented a proposal to the Legislature to provide such treatment. Opponents, primarily from unions representing existing prison employees, came out of the woodwork with a barrage of misinformation designed to stop any changes to how business is being done right now. They said these prisoners would not be treated in prisons (which is false) and that the treatment programs would not be staffed with certified law enforcement officers (false). They said the Florida Department of Corrections would no longer control which prisoners would receive treatment (false). That said our proposal is prison privatization (false) and the treatment regimens are not successful (false).

The truth is that under our proposal, all prisoners would be housed in one of three secure prisons already built by the state. These facilities have sat empty and unused for almost a year, built with taxpayer-financed bonds that you and I must still repay. Our idea would be to have providers chosen through a competitive process treat qualifying offenders there, giving these inmates the means to live law-abiding lives.

Under our proposal and in accordance with state law, security staff would have to be certified correctional officers and treatment would be provided by staff specifically trained to do this kind of work. The union representing state correctional officers – the Teamsters – says its members can perform the same treatment work with the same success, but DOC’s own statistics tell a completely different story. The department’s website shows that the recidivism rate for inmates in state-operated programs is higher than those in private programs, and their future employment rate is lower. Correctional officers are very good at guarding inmates, but they simply are not trained to treat inmates’ mental health and substance abuse problems.

Unlike what our opponents say, DOC will still perform each inmate’s initial assessment and then determine which felons receive treatment services. They will be non-violent offenders nearing the end of their sentences, generally with less than 36 months to go. All felons will still be in secure prisons. If an inmate is eligible for work release, the department will still make that decision – and felons on work release will be fitted with electronic locator bracelets.

Finally, critics suggest that these ideas reflect a “soft” approach to crime. A plan that steers low-level offenders away from crime and frees up resources to concentrate on more serious criminals is not soft on crime. In fact, an independent public opinion poll in December showed that the people of Florida are ready for this kind of reform, overwhelmingly supporting supervised work release (89%), cost-effective programs (84%), and a stronger probation system (74%). Most importantly, more than three in four (78%) agree an elected official can support these cost-effective proposals and still be considered “tough on crime.”

The time has come to change the way we do business in Florida. Other states, including Texas, Georgia and South Carolina, have already implemented treatment programs with successful outcomes. Staunch conservatives like Rep. Dennis Baxley of Ocala and Sen. Thad Altman of Titusville are among the foremost supporters of Smart Justice ideas in Florida.

They understand that taxpayers deserve better outcomes, lower recidivism and enhanced public safety. We can accomplish all of this by taking a smarter approach to justice.

Why This Democrat Will Be Voting for Mitt Romney

August 1, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns, News

In 1992, I was the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party. I managed political operations for the Democrats in one of the largest swing states in our nation.

Our nominee, Bill Clinton, went on to win the presidency, and he fostered eight prosperous years in our nation’s history. He delivered balanced budgets and surpluses that reduced the nation’s debt.

Clinton was the type of Democrat I’ve supported my whole life, fiscally conservative while still focused on the needs of the hard-working middle class. Clinton famously declared, “The era of big government is over.” Barack Obama is a completely different kind of Democrat.

Read More in the Sunshine State News

Higher Education Needs Reform: The Blue Ribbon Task Force

May 8, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

By Barney Bishop, Strategic Public Affairs, Expert Out Loud

If you are an eternal optimist then Governor Rick Scott’s veto of enhanced education funding for the University of Florida and Florida State University last week was an omen of good things to come.  For in his veto letter the Governor clearly laid out a roadmap of how this concept could pass his muster the next time it comes to his desk.

Much was written by the mainstream press about the Governor’s veto and that it was wrong-headed to do.  Yet, on Friday the Governor announced a seven member Blue Panel Task Force on State Higher Education Reform led by the very capable Dr. Dale Brill, President of the Florida Chamber Foundation that along with SUS Chancellor Frank Brogan and the Florida Board of Governors will provide recommendations that would allow FSU and UF to raise their tuition higher than the other universities in the state.  The much lauded goal is to help boost FSU into the league of UF and other major universities that already are members of the prestigious AAU – the finest research universities in America.

In the span of five days the Governor has gone from being scorned by the press to being recognized that he will always adhere to his principles but, if possible, will suggest a remedy if there is a way to overcome his objection.  This is exactly the way we should all expect all of our Governors to act and this Governor with his uber- Chief of Staff David McNamara has pulled the rabbit out of the hat that will set this up for a victory in next year’s legislative session.

I believe in what the Governor is trying to achieve and both our PreK-14 and higher education system is ripe for continued reform.  It’s less really about the amount of money than it is about how we spend the money we have but you’ll never convince the left and the press that is so.  Failing public schools must endure competition if they are to become better otherwise they will continue to wallow in mediocrity simply to make the teacher union happy and keep poor performing teachers employed.  Speaker of the House Dean Cannon said as much in his opening remarks to the Joint Session this past January.

Too many of our next generation of children are only getting a modicum of what they need in reading and writing skills.  As a result our higher education system has to “pay” $172 million dollars a year to “remediate” high schools students who are not yet up to par to perform in college.  Yes, that’s how much we spend every year for failed-to-be-ready-to-compete high school graduates.  If there isn’t a bigger admission of institutional failure in our educational system, I’m not sure what it will take to convince you.

Our higher education system while good is not very, very good and so the key question for the future is are we going to help produce the skilled workforce needed for the future?  While we have America’s first high-technology industry right here in our state – the Space Program – and Florida has smartly been investing strategically in and around Kennedy Space Center.  Along with aerospace, we have still emerging bio-life; bio-medicine and bio-science industry clusters growing that will be synergistic with a top-notch skilled workforce.  And, Orlando especially has become home to many small but cutting-edge computer simulation companies doing work for the military since all four branches have their simulation commands at the UCF Research Park.  And across town in Winter Park, Electronic Arts, the giant in the gaming business, is growing its operations in a race for supremacy in high technology.

Yet, our State University System (SUS) needs to be producing more of these STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) graduates that can then feed into these cutting-edge jobs than what we are doing now.  Thus, the initiative this past session to allow differential funding for FSU-UF based on certain criteria being met which only they could meet. The Governor, opposed to tuition hikes in principle, vetoed the bill.

Tuition hikes are always controversial which is why it’s the third rail of education in Florida and it rightfully revolves around access versus quality.  But have you seen what kind of cars college students are driving these days?  Most don’t work but go to school full time.  They don’t even take 18 per semester credit hours like I did when I was in college because federal grants only pay for 12 hours of study.  So with higher education becoming more expensive by the year why do we still cling to four years when we should be getting them out in three?  In the end though, if the college grads don’t have the skills that employers of the future will need then few will become employed here.
The Blue Ribbon Task Force will have its collective hands full trying to wade through the education battlefield of turf-defense.  Nevertheless, it must have strong and defensible recommendations that will serve our state well if we are to continue the much-needed education reform that will produce the outcomes we all say we need.

Barney Bishop III, who just founded his third company – Barney Bishop Consulting, LLC, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat with a strong fiscally conservative streak. He is the former President & CEO of Associated Industries of Florida and he believes that government is not the answer to all of our problems, that civil discourse is obligatory, that compromising on details will not undercut one’s core beliefs, and that a resilient, robust private sector is the elixir needed for a true democracy to grow and survive. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com .

Noble Political Moments Worth Remembering

May 7, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Politics is a contact sport. A bloody and brutal one. But it doesn’t always have to happen that way and two recent examples remind us of why politics can still be a noble profession.

Redistricting is the bane of any legislator’s dreams because whenever you move the lines of a district you are playing with their ability to get re-elected. Survive it and you can have a new lease on public life. But if the lines go the wrong way, you have a tough choice to make.

Twice within recent months, we have witnessed the personal ambitions of two elected officials – Reps. Brad Drake, R-DeFuniak Springs, and Eric Eisnaugle, R-Orlando – be set aside because they didn’t want to run against their colleagues, Reps. Marti Coley, R-Marianna, and Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, respectively.

This is a rare event in politics and one of the consequences of the once-a-decade redistricting process. Brad Drake is an astute, affable young businessman who was growing in seniority in the House while representing Washington County, one of the state’s most rural districts. But the new lines for the House meant Brad and his next door neighbor, Marti Coley, would have to run against each other. Marti took her husband David’s seat after his shocking and untimely death.

Coincidentally, both Brad and David worked together as legislative aides; Brad for Don Brown and David for Jamie Westbrook, before becoming elected in their own right. In an eloquent farewell speech on the floor of the House, Brad spoke about the love and affection he had for David and Marti and knowing that she wanted to finish her commitment of eight years, he voluntarily stepped aside. It was a class act by a statesman who put his respect for public service and the common good before his own political desires.

In Orlando, Rep. Eric Eisnaugle recently came to the same conclusion and made the announcement in a simple letter to the editor. Not a press conference. Not even a press release. I got the opportunity to work with him over this past session and found him to be tenacious with a determined spirit. Eric was a major player with a bright future in House leadership, yet he, too, cut his career short to forgo a contest with his cross-town friend, Steve Precourt.

And he did it by talking about the seat belonging to the people, not him. Rarely do you hear a politician talk with distinction like that. Washington are you listening?

This is what should be taught in Civics 101. This is why many of us got involved in public service back in the 60’s and 70’s, to be a part of something bigger, to try and solve our problems for the betterment of all mankind. Stuff that hardly anyone talks about anymore.

Brad and Eric could have just as easily filed to run, and since they are incumbents they would have raised a lot of money and had a chance to win. But neither took that route and their unselfishness is to be admired and praised.

For this, we will miss their dedication to wanting to “do what was right, rather than what it took to get re-elected” as Eric recently wrote in his announcement to the hometown newspaper. Far too often that is not the case in the legislative arena and we are all poorer for it.

That’s why we should continue to cherish the right to vigorous political contests. But once elected, we have the right to expect the legislature to do the people’s work by setting aside petty differences for a higher cause – the good of us all.

Even if Washington is doomed, there is at least a glimmer of hope in Tallahassee where two legislators transcended their own will, for the will of the people. You just can’t get any better than that.

Barney Bishop III, former head of Associated Industries of Florida, is the founder of Barney Bishop Consulting. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com.

Barney Bishop Op-Ed Response: Justice, not questioning rights, should prevail in Martin case

April 12, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

I respectfully disagree with everything that was said in the column “We Need a Broad Review of Gun Laws” (Byron Dobson, April 8 ) except the suggestions that we look into the training that law enforcement officers receive on the Stand Your Ground law. That is a worthy idea and can be implemented immediately.

The rest of the commentary is wrong on so many levels. First, I applaud Gov. Rick Scott for his sound and measured response to the incident itself and the attempt by many to influence justice by protesting — which is OK by me — except that to expect justice to be meted out this way is just plain wrong regardless of the circumstances. In the last century and before, we called this lynching by mob and we don’t allow that to happen in a civilized world anymore. The governor’s appointment of a special prosecutor, which most other governors have done time and time again, is the only appropriate choice.

I also admire the Governor’s, Senate President’s and House Speaker’s unwillingness to have an immediate review because it would only be a reactionary event that could turn into a rush to judgment. That’s not impassionate, blind-folded justice; it’s about assuming someone is guilty before they are proven innocent.

Despite what has been written about the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin case, we do not yet know all of the facts and law enforcement is still doing its job. Let’s give them time to do their work and take some solace that many law enforcement agencies are involved.

To use this unfortunate event as a rallying cry for gun control is illogical. And to suggest that 800,000 concealed weapons permits is somehow wrong, I just don’t get it. Beyond the fact that it is the Second Amendment in our Constitution, not the seventh or 10th, its importance is embodied only behind free speech. As an owner of guns and a proud NRA member, there is nothing wrong about defending yourself at your castle. Perhaps this law is being abused, but a fair and impartial hearing on the Stand Your Ground law is not possible in this whipped-up hysteria.

 

Neither I nor any of my friends believe that what happened is right, and peaceful protests are a God-given right. So is the right to bear a firearm however, and for the 99 percent of our citizenry who abide by the law and who only want fairness and justice for everyone, there can be no breach of our right either.

I understand why some people would believe there should be gun control because I grew up in a household without there ever being a gun in our home. But there is nothing wrong with owning a gun — it is a God-given right, and by the way, we don’t want any Constitutional rights trampled. Unfortunately, I can’t say that for those in our society who want to take away our right to own or carry a concealed gun, especially when we have been trained and licensed by government to carry one.

As a lobbyist, I have known Sen. Chris Smith for many years and I respect him and if he wants to host a meeting, that’s fine too. But, if justice is to prevail for Zimmerman — as it must for any of us — I sure hope that America remains a country where justice prevails with all due speed but without a presumed guilty-ness.

As for the comment that Trayvon could have been the son of Mayor John Marks, I would have hoped that in this day and age that the correct comment is that Trayvon could have been any of our sons. Everyone’s life is precious regardless of their sex, race, ethnicity or faith. We are all in this together. Let justice, which can often be slow and meticulous, work because we have a many-layered legal system that continues to be the best and the fairest in the world.

— Barney T. Bishop III is president and CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting in Tallahassee. He can be reached at barney@barneybishop.com.

Byron Dobson: We need a broad review of gun laws

The political upheaval and emotional toll that the wait for resolution is taking in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin has prompted state lawmakers and even some members of Congress to respond by urging a repeal of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

That sentiment was expressed in Tallahassee last week when nearly 200 people participated in a march to the Capitol, expressing outrage over the fact that George Zimmerman has not been indicted in the shooting death of Martin.

Tallahassee Mayor John Marks, who will host the ninth annual Mayor’s Summit on Race, Culture and Human Relations beginning Monday in Tallahassee, expressed his own concerns over the Martin case. He was quoted in the Miami Herald saying, “But for the grace of God, Trayvon could have been my son. We’re not here to try (Zimmerman) in the streets or through the press. We just want the justice system to work as it should.”

Marks’ comments ring strong. The most immediate resolution would be for special prosecutor Angela Corey to bring charges against Zimmerman. Another option is to present it to a grand jury, where it could become a roll of the dice.

The case has been botched from the beginning, and this is what has raised so much doubt among protesters who have propelled this case to the national attention it deserves. Zimmerman admits shooting and killing Martin, saying the young man’s actions made him fear for his life. But then days went by without an arrest, and that has now turned into weeks. The Sanford police chief and the state attorney for that area both declined to file charges against Zimmerman, citing the state law that permits a person to defend himself in a situation where his life is threatened.

Unable to persuade Gov. Rick Scott to call for an immediate review and also getting the same reaction from Florida’s legislative leaders, state Sen. Chris Smith, a Democrat from Broward County, decided to take the lead by launching his own probe of the law and its impact, starting with a public forum Thursday in Fort Lauderdale.

And while Smith’s insistence on gathering evidence to support a revision or repeal of the law is commendable, such efforts appear to be premature if any review is going to have any major impact. As a state legislator, Smith has the right to respond to the call of his constituents and to address the sentiment that is being carried out in marches across the country. But at this point, there seem to be several factors that need to be addressed.

For instance:

• Why not expand it to review Florida’s laws on racial profiling?

• Why not re-examine Florida’s liberal laws on the ability to obtain a concealed weapons permit?

• Why not look into examining what training law-enforcement officers have in the current “Stand Your Ground” law?

Florida is known for having some of the most liberal gun-related legislation in the country. Published reports last week indicated that more than 800,000 concealed weapons permits have been issued in Florida. The Department of Agriculture, which issues such permits, estimates that an additional 100,000 permits are brought into the state by visitors.

The Martin case has opened a ton of questions that need to be addressed regarding handgun access and the laws that currently protect owners’ right to use them.

To his credit, Gov. Scott has ordered the creation of a panel that will review the Martin shooting and determine what issues arise from that probe that need to be addressed. Most certainly there will be a call for a review of “Stand Your Ground” that will set off another political debate along party lines and heavily influenced by the National Rifle Association.

As for what legislative action will be addressed once the Martin case is closed, that will ultimately be decided by Florida’s voters.

 

Smart Justice is Really Smart Business

April 3, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Almost five years ago the “Smart Justice” idea was borne out of the necessity to stop Florida’s unrelenting prison construction program under which then-Gov. Charlie Crist proposed building 19 new prisons, each costing $150 million before prisoners were even interned.  Florida TaxWatch in its first Government Cost Savings Task Force Report recommended against this prison-industrial complex, my words not theirs, and a small group decided that we needed to radically change course. Had Crist prevailed, our state’s debt would have increased by over $2 billion.

The premise was simple:  if we expected different outcomes – less recidivism – then we had to do business in a smarter fashion. It was decided that diversion on the front-end for non-violent criminals and low-level druggies, education, life skills training, along with substance abuse and mental health services while in prison, and then a successful transitional/re-entry program including work release would save significant dollars, and get us the outcomes that we clearly needed.  Both character-based and faith-based programs would be embraced.

Despite a relatively good 32 percent recidivism rate by the Department of Corrections, we can and must do much better if we are to save dollars to spend on more worthy societal needs.  Last year, new Juvenile Justice Secretary Wansley Walters championed a statewide Civil Citation program that, if it is as successful as her 15-year-old program in Miami and Tom Olk’s program in Tallahassee, has the potential to save taxpayers $150 million annually.  And that’s key because 50 percent of all kids that enter the juvenile justice system will unfortunately go on to prison.  If we cut off the head of the snake now, then we have a chance to alter the same old lousy outcomes:  innocent victims and costly incarceration.

Because we weren’t advocating early release of any state prisoners nor amending the  law requiring they serve 85 percent of their sentence, we received the early support of the Florida Police Benevolent Association and interestingly, prison guards raised their hands to work at faith-based prisons because they are the safest in the state.

To incarcerate 100,000 prisoners, Florida taxpayers pay more than $2 billion annually on our correctional system. More than 35,000 prisoners are released each year and within three years, almost a third of them will be back in prison. To his credit Gov. Rick Scott saw the folly of the status quo and in his budget, fully endorsed the idea of providing services to prisoners to elicit better outcomes.

Now, a recent poll by TaxWatch (www.floridataxwatch.org) and AIF (www.aif.com), which most of the mainstream press ignored, proves that Gov. Scott is leading public opinion even among his most die-hard fans:  conservative GOP voters who normally would be expected to be the lock’em up and throw away the key thinkers. The top numbers were shocking – 88 percent support supervised work-release; 86 percent believe “tough on crime” politicians should support community supervision, mandatory drug testing and treatment; 84 percent want non-violent offenders sent to cost-effective alternatives instead of prison; and most intriguing of all was that 81 percent of Republicans believe legislators who send minor, non-violent criminals to supervised work release to repay victims and save taxpayers from footing their prison bills would earn their vote at election time.  Well, hallelujah!

Now, the idea of smarter justice has been adopted at the federal level by a group called Right On Crime, I love the name, whose leaders include former FBI Director William Sessions, former Drug Czar Bill Bennett, Newt Gingrich and even Grover Norquist.  Former Gov. Jeb Bush has importantly become the first Floridian to sign on and with such enlightened interest among the toughest voters and its leaders, can Florida policy makers be far behind?

This is a cause that we should all care about because the alternative means more crime victims and a costly prison system that is determined to perpetuate itself if we as taxpayers do not say “enough is enough.” Likewise, the business community has a vested interest because when the economy finally improves, we will need employees with skills who want to make a better life.

Barney Bishop III, former head of Associated Industries of Florida, is the founder of Barney Bishop Consulting. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com.

Barney Bishop column: Dept. of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prassad on a legislative crusade

March 27, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Columns

Posted at http://www.saintpetersblog.com

Florida Department of Transportation Secretary Ananth Prassad has been on a legislative crusade for the past two years as he has repeatedly attempted to take over the Tampa-Hillsborough Expressway Authority (THEA), the Mid-Bay Bridge Authority, and the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority (OOCEA).  By hook or crook he is determined to “consolidate” these entities either within the FDOT or the Florida Turnpike Enterprise.

However, these three local toll road authorities have successfully beat back these attacks and will be forced to continue to do so until he gives up his stubborn quest.  So, what is this all about really?  Well, it’s about a number of things but most importantly it is about the desire to bring these local agencies with well-earned and very strong revenue potentials into the departments fold and use that money to fund projects around the state.  Except that is not what these authorities were created to do, rather they were created to allow local board members to craft smart solutions to their local road challenges – to meet their local needs.  FDOT by definition is about creating solutions on a state-wide basis and connecting urban areas together.  In fact, no other state in the country is pushing all decision-making to the state level except for this Secretary.  Meanwhile other states are actually following Florida’s model and creating moreregional toll authorities to insure that there is a local focus on urban traffic congestion, and this is especially true in Texas, a state that Governor Rick Scott sometimes looks to for idea’s.

Now, THEA saw this legislative train moving out of the station last year and so they developed a comprehensive strategy to accelerate their debt re-payments to the state, which lent money in the first place so that THEA (and other toll authorities) could begin construction.  Since toll authorities need toll revenue to pay back bond holders, and since new roads have little toll revenue, someone must loan them the money up–front and the state realizing this many years ago developed the state infrastructure bank and the lease-purchase concepts.  As toll revenues start coming in, then the local toll authority can begin to repay the bank the money plus interest.

But what happens when a local toll authority wants to repay their debt, yet the state refuses to accept the cash?  Who would look a gift horse in the mouth and refuse the money?  Secretary Prassad for one.  What?  Yep, you read it right.  FDOT refused last summer to accept a finance plan from THEA that would have THEA directly fund $100 million of their own work versus FDOT insisting on funding the THEA work.  THEA’s plan would have freed up $100 million of FDOT funds and the plan would have THEA making an early re-payment of $65 million to FDOT for prior loans.  In sum, THEA’s plan would have made FDOT the beneficiary of $165 million and FDOT’s excuse for not taking the money is so logically convoluted that it is indeed difficult, if not impossible, to rationalize.  By refusing to accept the plan however – and simultaneously refusing to allow THEA to pay back the money early – FDOT is able to continue to control the future of the authority.  When FDOT testifies before the legislature, if you listen carefully you will hear him say that THEA is not paying back the debt quick enough.  Well, do you want the money back or not?  Or is it just a “control” issue?

What THEA had devised was a brilliant stroke to refinance their bonds, pay off some of their debt to the state bank, and with the state dollars freed by the refi; they projected about $165 million in new road construction money for Florida that would have the ability to put about 5,000 people to work.  And this would have occurred without any increase in tolls!  And the new debt would not be state debt; it would be THEA’s debt.  Sounds unbelievable huh?  Well, sometimes friends the truth is stranger than fiction.

Last summer the THEA chair wrote a letter outlining the circumstances of the early debt rejection and it has still fallen on deaf ears.  This year’s transportation budget was better than last year’s, but it could have been even better had the dollars that THEA wanted to re-pay, instead been accepted and then used to help fund other transportation projects.

FDOT and the Secretary continue to argue, as recently as last week, that by consolidating the local toll authorities the state would accrue $24 million in savings, even though the Reason Foundation’s (www.reason.org) January 31, 2011 study, Should Florida Toll Agencies Be Consolidated analyzed the numbers carefully and found them to be off base by about 85%!  That is, at best, the state might realize about $3.5 million in savings and more likely only about $2 million.  Yet, the Secretary continues to assert that the $24 million is correct without offering even scant evidence that he is correct.  And moreover he hasn’t pointed out any fallacies in the study’s accounting that would make one believe that he is right.  So, why does he continue to make the argument?  Because everyone in the transportation business is afraid to tell the Emperor that he has no clothes on.

At a meeting of the Florida Transportation Commission and TEAMFL next week in Tampa, Robert Poole, one of the co-authors of the study, and probably the preeminent toll road expert in the country, is to be given an opportunity to present his study to the local toll authorities, engineers and road builders who do this for a living.  Not only does the study reveal that the figures are mostly smoke and mirrors, the report goes on to say that local toll authorities are where real innovation is taking place. For example, OOCEA was able to get rid of toll booths entirely and use transponders to access driver’s accounts.  Even the latest innovation:  reversible express lanes with all-electronic tolling was developed by the Tampa toll authorities, not the state.

The FDOT Secretary is a smart man whose job is serving the Governor and the people of Florida.  But when he refuses to acknowledge the facts, and continues to assert numbers that cannot be justified by independent analysis, then something is clearly wrong with this picture.  When he was quoted last week in the Tampa Bay Times calling local toll authorities a “shadow bureaucracy,” it became evident to me that it was time that we teach the Secretary a lesson in civics.  Mr. Secretary, we call that local government and it is generally believed by most Americans that government closest to the people is the most accountable.  Not in Tallahassee, but at the local level.

Barney Bishop III, who just founded his third company – Barney Bishop Consulting, LLC, is an outspoken, lifelong Democrat with a strong fiscally conservative streak. He believes that government is not the answer to all of our problems, that civil discourse is obligatory, that compromising on details will not undercut one’s core beliefs, and that a resilient, robust private sector is the elixir needed for a true democracy to grow and survive. You can contact him at barney@barneybishop.com.

The Bishop Blog: Governor Rick Scott is Underrated February 8, 2012

February 9, 2012  |  No Comments  |  by Barney Bishop  |  Bishop Blog, Columns

Governor Rick Scott is much underrated nowadays. We are told that he is unpopular yet, based on the issues that he ran on and delivered in his first year in office, he has done exceedingly well even among Democrats, and the critically important Independents and Ticket-Splitter voters.
Of course this is not conventional wisdom, but according to a poll taken after last year’s legislative session (August 2011) by Associated Industries of Florida, Governor Scott’s agenda is striking a very responsive chord among voters (www.aif.com/press_release/2011/FLAIF_08_11_Scott_Release.pdf). Of his top four issues:  $200 million of Property Tax Reductions, State Workers Pension Contribution Reform, Teacher Tenure Reform and Drug Testing for Welfare Recipients, he has hit a solid Grand Slam.  Among Dem’s, the lowest amount of support was  surprisingly on drug testing in which still more than 6 out of 10 Democrats supported the Governor and the highest support was 74% for Property Tax Reductions.  Independents and Ticket-Splitters (voters who switch party per race) ranged from a low of 73% on Teacher Tenure – unheard of here in Tallahassee, home to the teachers union to an incredibly high of better than 3 out of every four voters (76%) on Teacher Tenure and almost 8 out of every ten voters (78.5%) on Drug Testing!  So, when teachers unions sue, or labor unions go to court they are just reinforcing their unpopular positions of which only a distinct minority of even Democrats support them statewide.  Check out the numbers and the crosstabs as they tell a story of a businessman turned Governor who has the voters of Florida with him on these core issues– wholeheartedly.

This session, the Governor is once again taking on issues that will matter most to the voters such as PIP Auto Insurance Reform and importantly reform of Citizens Insurance Company.  Since he first started running for office about 20 months ago, the Governor in defiance of our last one has consistently been preaching for reform of the Property & Casualty Insurance marketplace – the need to bring back some balance and common sense.  Legislation moving through the House and Senate this year will do just that.

Citizens is the largest p & c insurance company in the state.  It has more liabilities than assets and it buys more reinsurance from Florida’s CAT Fund than anyone else.  The CAT Fund, ably managed by Dr. Jack Nicholson, on the other hand is consistently well-managed, but is weakened by the problems in America’s bond market.  The CAT Fund can barely cover one hurricane per year, yet is legally required to cover two per season!  It is a recipe for disaster and in an admittedly worse-case scenario could even bankrupt the state.  Unfortunately, the solution will require rates to go up for coastal residents but it’s time that their subsidization by in-land residents begins to start declining.  We need to go further, such as limiting how much longer high-income beach residents will get unreasonably low insurance rates without mitigating or hardening their homes.  A time limit will force these homeowners to take action thus limiting the taxes on all of our insurance policies when Citizens cannot fund their entire losses.  For those that cannot afford to harden their home, we need to find a public-private solution.

Education funding is an area where Governor Scott has listened to voters and is moving to increase per-child spending. I’m happy that we as Floridians are willing to pay more; but we should also demand more as well.  We should demand that social promotion be entirely wiped out and we should admit to ourselves that all children aren’t excited for post-secondary – and we couldn’t afford them all anyway. Let’s make sure each child has a “plan” once they graduate and we will quickly learn who wants to stay in school and who wants to go to work.  We should expect our astronomically high reading program investments to pay higher dividends in PreK-12 and accordingly we should see our multi-million dollar remedial education bill at state colleges and universities start to decrease.  If this doesn’t happen, and it hasn’t so far, then we need better solutions so that our children can compete in this extremely competitive world.

So, the next time that someone tells you that Rick Scott is unpopular, just remember that Floridians overwhelmingly like his major policies and that the detractor may just be someone whose ox is finally getting gored.

 

Barney Bishop III is President and CEO of Barney Bishop Consulting, LLC.  He is a life-long Democrat with conservative fiscal views and moderate social positions.  He can be reached at barney@barneybishop.com