Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Rush to privatize is all about bucks

Our governor was deeply offended by a burst of unkind aspersions after an insurance company that didn’t exist 11 months ago finagled a $52 million deal out of the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Company.

Heritage Property and Casualty Insurance landed the very sweet package — all that money to take over 60,000 windstorm policies from Citizens — just two months after contributing $110,000 to Gov. Rick Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” political action committee in March. And after Heritage (an odd name for a company with a heritage dating back to last August) contributed $30,000 to the state Republican party.

Reporters wondered whether hefty political contributions might have greased the suspect transaction. (So suspect that Senate President Don Gaetz has announced a Senate investigation.)

The governor’s spokesperson retorted that “any assertion that our office influenced the Heritage risk transfer decision by the Citizens Board is outrageous.”

Then why, one wonders, the contributions? What was this fledgling company buying with its $140,000? It’s the wormy question hanging over Florida’s stampede to privatize state functions.

Private for-profit companies, while getting rich off the taxpayers, taking over state prisons, probation services, public toll roads, prison health services, online education, pieces of the state park system, school tutoring and windstorm insurance, are simultaneously enriching their benefactors’ re-election committees.

Or they’re hiring the state’s most powerful influence peddlers. In February, Citizens similarly paid Weston Insurance $63 million to take over 30,000 policies — after Weston spent $250,000 on Tallahassee lobbyists. When Sunshine State Health Plans wanted a piece of the action as Florida moved Medicaid clients into privately managed health care plans, the company hired Dean Cannon, last year’s speaker of the House.

The well-lobbied 2013 Legislature voted to funnel more public money to private, for-profit, online education operations — despite unsettling revelations about their class sizes and teacher qualifications — while reducing funding for the state-run Florida Virtual Schools. Without evidence that private companies would do any better job teaching students. Or that taxpayers would be getting more for their money.

All that influence money flowing into Tallahassee, even as state politicians turn over state assets and state funds to private outfits, keeps raising the same nagging question: Is it about us, about the public’s best interest? Or is it all about the money?

In 2011, the Legislature voted to privatize 29 prisons and work camps in 18 South Florida counties. Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie L. Fulford ruled that the Legislature can privatize prisons, sure, but not like this. Not without the requisite “cost comparison study, cost-benefit analysis, or business case analysis.” Not without consulting the state auditor general.

The judge said the “rush” to turn state prisons over to corporate interests “resulted in many shortcomings in the evaluation of whether privatization is in the best public interest as it relates to cost savings and effective service.”

It was just a variation of the same troubling question. Was this deal about the public interest? Or was it all about the influence money?