As Florida's legislative session ends, upbeat lawmakers celebrate 'sausage'

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauMay 4, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- The Florida Legislature concluded its 2013 session Friday in a burst of bipartisanship, taking advantage of a resurgent economy to overwhelmingly pass the biggest budget in history and giving pay raises to state workers for the first time in seven years. However, an expansion of Medicaid failed, passing up more than $50 billion in federal funding and dealing a defeat to Gov. Rick Scott.

On the final day, lawmakers also expanded early voting sites, carved out a nursing home for the influential developer of The Villages retirement community, and gave families a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday in August. They also rejected a heavily lobbied effort by the Miami Dolphins to seek voter-approved tax subsidies for Sun Life Stadium.

As the session adjourned Sine Die at 7:16 p.m., House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, heartily hugged in a crowded Capitol rotunda and noted how much more smoothly the session ended than in the past couple of years.

"The age of acrimony between the House and the Senate is over," Gaetz proclaimed to loud applause.

Weatherford and Gaetz celebrated passage of higher ethical standards for public officials, including limits on lobbying by former lawmakers and on patronage jobs they can take while in office. They championed changes to campaign laws, including higher contribution limits for candidates, but Weatherford fell short of his goal of moving public employees from the state's traditional pension plan to 401(k)-style retirement accounts.

Gov. Rick Scott praised lawmakers at the brief post-session ceremony for passing his two priorities of a teacher pay raise and a sales tax cut for manufacturing equipment. "This is a great day for Florida families," he said.

The final day was smooth and deliberate in contrast to the partisan rancor of recent days when the House used a rapid-fire automated female voice to recite thousands of pages of legislative jargon after Democrats demanded that bills be read in full.

Like so much of the 2013 session, that clash of wills was about Medicaid. From start to finish, the dominant theme was the stalemate between the Senate and House over $51 billion in federal money to insure one million or more Floridians under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Scott endorsed Medicaid expansion in February but largely stayed on the sidelines as legislators battled the issue to a draw, with the Senate supporting taking the federal money and the House refusing.

And with little fanfare, perhaps the most controversial issue of the session fizzled, leaving roughly 1.1 million Floridians uninsured for now. It was unclear whether Scott will call a special session or if the issue will still be unsettled when the Legislature reconvenes next March.

The Senate had passed a bill supported by Scott, but the House Republican leadership had refused to consider it, so the bill died at adjournment. The governor reiterated Friday that because Florida taxpayers pay into the Medicaid program, the state should take the federal money.

You had a Senate that's open to accepting federal dollars, a governor open to it and a House that wasn't," said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Winter Park. "We're passing a $74 billion budget, and over $30 billion of it is federal dollars. If there's an overarching theme, we need to work on being consistent."

Scott, the Senate, House Democrats, Florida hospitals, health advocates and a diverse mix of business and labor groups all lined up in support of a bill proposed by Republican Sen. Joe Negron that would have drawn down more than $50 billion from the federal government over the next decade and given it to an estimated 1.1 million Floridians to purchase private insurance.

The proposal would have saved the state money, but House Republicans resisted accepting any funding tied to the federal law and instead passed a bill that would use $237 million in state funds to cover about 115,000 residents. The Obama administration has sought to offer health insurance to more Americans by extending the Medicaid eligibility levels to those making up to 138 percent of the poverty level. But the House plan only addressed residents making at or below 100 percent. That's roughly $11,000 a year for a single person and about $19,500 for family of three.

Scott slammed that plan, saying it would doubly tax Florida families as they would be paying federal taxes to pay for people in other states but would get no benefit themselves.

AARP, the nation's largest advocacy group for people 50 and older, called the session "disappointing" because of the failure of lawmakers to expand Medicaid.

The session's other noteworthy events were a prohibition on storefront gambling dens known as Internet cafés; making it illegal to text while driving; and spending billions of dollars more on programs and projects after five years of cuts due to a weak economy.

The Internet café ban was prompted by a criminal investigation that hastened the March 12 resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll after she was interviewed by law enforcement agents because her firm did marketing work for the veterans' group at the center of the investigation.

It took the full nine weeks, but lawmakers approved both of Scott's legislative priorities -- attaching conditions to both. The $2,500 teacher pay raise was not the across-the-board increase Scott called for in January. Instead, it is subject to school board-approved teacher evaluation plans in all 67 counties "any time before June 2014."

The manufacturing equipment tax break won't take effect until next April and expires in three years unless lawmakers renew it. It also could be subject to a constitutional challenge because it reduces revenue to cities and counties.

"We've been good to the governor," Weatherford said. "I think we've delivered on the two issues he cared the most about this session."

Gaetz made it clear that Scott's two priorities are critical to his plans to seeking a second term in 2014, despite persistently poor job approval ratings from voters.

"The governor got two wins," Gaetz said. "It gives him a lift going into the summer and going into the election cycle."

Lawmakers blessed a $74.5 billion spending plan that includes $1.1 billion more for public schools and a 3 percent tuition increase at colleges and universities that Scott opposes.

The budget is stuffed with hundreds of millions of dollars for hometown projects, from $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to $1 million for a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami. It has $70 million for the Everglades and $10 million for natural springs.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, noted that the budget also sets aside $2.8 billion in cash reserves and spends $500 million to reduce the unfunded liability in the state pension fund. "Don't let people tell you we went on a spending spree. We didn't," he told senators.

The budget passed the Senate 40-0 and the House, 106-11, as 10 Democrats and Rep. John Tobia, R-Melbourne Beach, voted no.

Democrats who in past years voted against budgets that cut programs sided with the Republican majority this time. Some said they voted yes because they were treated more fairly.

"It is not only the fact that we had a better economy," Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, told Republicans. "It is the spirit that you brought to this chamber … I've felt included. It's been refreshing and wonderful."

Lawmakers tinkered with the state-backed Citizens Property Insurance Corp. by adding a clearinghouse to steer policyholders toward private insurers, but backed off raising rates for new policyholders. They banned use of air surveillance drones by law enforcement without search warrants, and the Senate deadlocked 20-20 for the second straight year on a "parent trigger" bill to give parents more control over failing schools.

The mood throughout the Capitol was generally more upbeat than in recent years, for one reason: money.

"Money makes people smile," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

Weatherford and the House did a big favor to the insurance industry on Friday by not taking up a bill that would have repealed a lucrative industry jobs credit after 26 years and used the money to repeal car tag fees. That was disappointing, Gaetz said.

Gaetz won bipartisan praise for his efficient and evenhanded style of governing.

In the final hours, the Legislature created a trauma center in Okaloosa County in his Panhandle district and he shepherded the most sweeping change to malpractice laws in a decade, limiting expert witness testimony and allowing doctors to discuss a patient's records in secret with a defendant's lawyers.

As the contentious and confusing work of lawmaking, known as the making of "sausage," wound down for another year, a creative lobbyist brought trays of homemade sausage for hungry visitors awaiting the traditional hankie hanky-drop signifying Sine Die, or the end of the session. Wayne Bertsch's brats even had a Twitter handle: "You've helped make sausage, now have some @SineDieSausage."

-- Information from the Associated Press supplemented this report.

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