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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Everybody's Working for the Wednesday

April 30, 2015 - 6:00pm

Every time the casual observer might have been tempted to say things had gotten as bizarre as they could during the 2015 legislative session, there was a new twist in the ongoing saga that featured health-care funding, intraparty fighting and more than enough personal drama for a telenovela.

But the final act of the session --- or perhaps the final acts of the session --- topped everything else. On Tuesday afternoon, the House simply decided to go home, more than three days before the session was supposed to end. The Senate then began a day and a half of kabuki theater before throwing in the towel Wednesday.

In the ensuing frenzy that swept over the Capitol, two lawsuits were filed, scores of bills died and many, many statements were issued by politicians. None of which seemed to bring lawmakers any closer to an agreement on the core issue: what to do about $5 billion in health-care funding that is in the Senate budget but not in the House spending plan.

That work will wait for a special session, to be called at some point in the future, as agreeing on even a date to get together and negotiate proved elusive. But it should give lawmakers plenty of time to come up with new ways to surprise observers.

YOU SAY GOODBYE, AND I SAY HELLO

The previous week had seemed, at least briefly, to offer hope that lawmakers would be able to strike a deal before too much time had passed. After all, they were swapping offers (of a sort) on the outlines of a budget, which would then be filled in by joint House-Senate committees.

But that work stopped last weekend, and by Tuesday, the House had apparently had enough.

Shortly after 1 p.m. that day, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, issued a "quorum call" meant to get House members back in the chamber. Once they were there, the speaker said the House had achieved all it could during the regular session and there was no need to continue to work so long as the Senate insisted on passing an alternative to Medicaid expansion.

"I made a promise to you when you elected me to be your speaker that I'd never ask you to vote for something that I wouldn't vote for myself," said Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. "Accordingly, I will not force anyone to expand Medicaid. And so for now, we stand at an impasse with the Senate. ... I do not see a need to keep you here waiting around, away from your families, away from your businesses, until the Senate decides they are ready to negotiate with us."

And then, they left.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said "nobody won" with the House's decision and decided to press on.

"We will be here tomorrow, and we will do our job," he said to a standing ovation from his Senate colleagues. "It's what the taxpayers expect of us. And that's what we will do."

So the Senate went about its business. Which mostly consisted of sending bills to a House that was not there to receive them, while savaging House leaders for good measure.

"Let me tell you something, members. If the House would still be here, I'll tell you we could get something done. But they're not. And this issue is way too important to take a take-it-or-leave it approach," Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, said about a mental-health services package (SB 7068)."In my experience in this process, when we just do it half-a---d and then we say we're going to come back next year and fix it, it never happens."

Senate Republicans also questioned whether the House move was legal, under an obscure provision of the state Constitution requiring both chambers to agree to any adjournment of more than 72 hours. Senate Democrats took things a step further, asking the Florida Supreme Court to order House members to return. On Friday afternoon, the court declined to step in --- but a majority of the court joined a decision by Justice Barbara Pariente saying the House didn't play by the rules.

"That constitutional provision clearly does not permit one house to adjourn in any fashion for more than seventy-two consecutive hours without the consent of the other house," Pariente wrote.

LEGISLATURE, HEAL THYSELF?

With the regular session over, the House and the Senate had to try to move onto the mechanics of a special session to solve the remaining health-care issues: what to do about a $2.2 billion program, set to expire June 30, that provides funding to hospitals and other medical providers, and whether to spend $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion money to help low-income Floridians purchase private insurance.

Gov. Rick Scott, who has at times seemed more interested in seeing a Ferris wheel and visiting a Wawa store than getting into the nitty-gritty of budget negotiations, tried to take the initiative Thursday by laying out his parameters for a special session.

Scott, who opposes Medicaid expansion, said he hopes federal officials will eventually approve his administration's request to continue the Low Income Pool --- the $2.2 billion pot of money that might soon run out. The request was submitted last week, almost a year after state officials were made aware that the funding could evaporate.

"However, we should begin preparing a budget in the interim that could be taken up in a special session without any LIP funding and without any expansion of Obamacare," Scott said, using the common name for the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes Medicaid expansion. "I look forward to continuing to work with Senate and House leaders in the weeks ahead to address critical funding needs and identify when and how we can direct over $1 billion in surplus state tax revenue back to the Florida citizens who earned it."

Legislative leaders didn't exactly rush to embrace the proposal.

"When you really start looking at how you do a budget, how you do all these other things that are being advocated for, when you have a $2.2 billion hole with no answer --- I'm not sure how responsible that is," Gardiner said.

So the Senate president wrote a letter to Crisafulli calling for the two chambers to hold a special session beginning June 1 to resolve the budget impasse. The Senate president held out hope that federal officials might get back to the state on how much it can expect to receive in LIP funding.

"Beginning our special session on June 1 will provide additional time to receive a response from the federal government, and we can conclude with ample time for Governor Scott to review the budget prior to June 30," Gardiner said.

Gardiner's proposed outline for the special session would limit lawmakers' agenda to the budget and a handful of closely related bills.

Scott also took a couple of other steps, releasing the first draft of an outline for work to be done by a proposed "Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding," and suing the federal officials he was asking to approve the state's LIP program. Scott's lawsuit claims that the efforts by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to link Medicaid expansion and LIP are unconstitutional.

By the way, he said, that was also reason not to accept federal money for the Senate Medicaid proposal.

"If the Obama administration can arbitrarily and capriciously end one health care program in Florida, likely leaving our state taxpayers to foot the bill, it would be irresponsible to further obligate state taxpayers by going deeper into Obamacare with an expansion of Medicaid," he said.

THE WALKING DEAD

The House's decision to leave the building, and the significant policy differences that lawmakers didn't really have time to work out, ended up killing some of the big-ticket items in the session. Everything from reform of the Department of Corrections to water legislation ended up dead in the crossfire.

A push to reform the state's embattled prisons agency was one casualty, though senators vowed not to drop the issue. One of the key disagreements was that the House's prison measure lacked an oversight commission included in a Senate plan (SB 7020). But Gardiner said he will dispatch his own committee to investigate problems in the corrections system that prompted lawmakers to propose the overhaul.

"We will put our corrections committee on the road within a couple of weeks and they will go and do their own investigations. I can subpoena people. We're not done with that," Gardiner, R-Orlando, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon. "It's unfortunate that the House did what they did. Usually these last three days is when you're negotiating. They just walked away."

The Senate approved its version of a water-policy bill with the hope that some of the issues will be considered when lawmakers get back together for a special session, but the measure itself died. Also dead: a revival of a tax-incentive program to attract film and television production to Florida and rules for app-based transportation services like Uber and Lyft, not to mention a handful of bills backed by Gardiner for Floridians with disabilities.

A proposal that would have boosted health and safety standards for early-education programs (SB 7006 and HB 7017) died for the second straight year. And a sweeping proposal (SB 7068 and HB 7119) to expand mental-health and substance-abuse services was instead swept away. Supporters say providing such services to parents can help prevent fatal consequences for children.

"The need for these services is based on the data that we know, on the facts," said Christina Spudeas, executive director of the advocacy group Florida's Children First. "Without those services in the community, we already know that children will die."

STORY OF THE WEEK: The House decided to end its regular legislative session Tuesday, shocking Capitol observers and sending dozens of bills to defeat.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I believe better days are ahead." -- House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, in a memo at the end of one of the most raucous weeks for the Legislature in recent memory.

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