Florida lawmakers try to put the difficult ending of the regular session behind to write a state budget and insure 800,000 Floridians.
It wasn’t exactly the same as taking your ball and going home with it, but the Florida House certainly put action behind its rhetoric when it walked out of the Legislature’s regular session three days ahead of the scheduled adjournment. The walkout was prompted largely by House-Senate disputes over the state budget and Medicaid expansion, and the result is the special session that got under way June 1.
Both issues were included on the special session agenda announced last month by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, along with bills that would remove a regulatory hurdle for hospitals wishing to increase their number of beds, permit more medical professionals who are not doctors to write prescriptions and divert a portion of documentary stamp funds to water and land protections approved under Amendment 1.
The two chambers ended the regular session more than $4 billion apart on spending out of an $80 million budget. Nothing in the joint proclamation resolved the budget impasse but both Crisafulli and Gardiner said the Legislature would meet its obligation to have a state budget in place before July 1.
The session is currently scheduled to end June 20.
The budget deadline is important because Florida’s bond rating — currently AAA, the highest possible — could be at risk if investors perceive the state’s budget process as unreliable. The U.S. bond rating suffered in 2011 when Congress waited until the last minute to broker a deal raising the U.S. debt ceiling.
A Medicaid solution, meanwhile, appears elusive. The regular session impasse centered on how to replace the Low Income Pool (LIP) program, a state-federal program the federal government is ending. LIP’s demise could leave as many as 800,000 Floridians without health insurance.
Shortly before the special session began, Gardiner announced support for a compromise introduced by Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, that would alter the Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange (FHIX) program the Senate passed during the regular session. The Bean legislation would eliminate Phase One Medicare enrollment from the proposed program, allowing eligible Floridians to move straight to FHIX.
The program is targeted at Florida residents who make 138 percent of the federal poverty level or less, and participants would pay a monthly premium of between $3 and $25, depending on their income level.
“Passage of the FHIX plan will help mitigate the impact to our economy as we transition from LIP to a more sustainable long-term solution,” said Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.
Though Crisafulli agreed to put Medicare expansion on the special session agenda, he and Scott began the session still opposed to taking any federal dollars for health insurance.
OTHER KEY BILLS
Despite all the drama surrounding the Special Session, the Legislature did tackle a number of other issues during its session. Key bills that passed included legislation allowing for online voter registration, a measure that allows tax-free savings accounts to help defray the cost of caring for special needs children, a repeal of the state’s gay adoption ban and a measure that makes extra land available in Palm Beach County to build a new, joint spring training facility for the Houston Astros and Washington Nationals.
Significant bills that failed included water resource legislation that was a high priority for Crisafulli, a bill that would have expanded table games and slot machines in South Florida, a measure extending the Seminole gambling compact, a bill to establish new regulatory oversight for ride-share programs like Uber and Lyft, legislation to expand medical marijuana usage and a bill to outlaw texting while driving.
In unique limbo are bills to provide new stadium funding and another reinstating performance-based tax credits for the Florida film industry. Both face an uphill struggle in the special session but may have a narrow path to enactment via the budget negotiations.
FLORIDA AND THE WHITE HOUSE
Congress continues to plod at a relatively slow place but Florida has captured a unique spot on the national political landscape — there are four people who have homes in the state running for president.
Even in a crowded GOP field where it seems easier to keep track of who is not running, the Florida Four stand out.Two are candidates whose political careers were bred and nurtured in the Sunshine State: former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio. Bush, the son of one former president and the brother of another, has not officially declared his candidacy but is raising significant amounts of campaign cash. Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, announced his candidacy in April.
The other two candidates have political roots elsewhere and either moved to Florida after retiring from their primary careers or live significant portions of the year in a vacation home here. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who sought the nomination in 2008 and was born in the same small town as Bill Clinton, has a home in Blue Mountain Beach, though he still considers Arkansas his political base. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, was raised and educated in Michigan and achieved his greatest medical triumphs working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. However, after retiring, he moved his family to Palm Beach.