TALLAHASSEE -- A sharply divided Florida Legislature returned to the Capitol Monday to resolve unfinished business, including a state budget, a stalemate over health care and expanded environmental protections mandated by voters in the state Constitution.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, gaveled the session to order at 1 p.m. in an eerily quiet Capitol, nearly five weeks after the regular session collapsed in a bitter clash over health care.
Lawmakers agree that their top priority is completing work on a budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Without a new budget, the state would be forced to shut down some services and many state workers would not be paid.
Gardiner and Crisafulli have said the Legislature will pass a budget, but budget negotiations between the Senate and House won’t start until next weekend, Gardiner told senators as the session got under way.
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Budget talks remain stalled in part because the two chambers haven’t agreed on how much state tax money should be used to plug a hole in a program known as the low-income pool that compensates hospitals for costs of treating uninsured and underinsured patients.
The House in late April offered to spend $600 million in state money to help hospitals cushion the blow to hospitals facing a drop in LIP money. But Crisafulli said Monday that offer is off the table, and that the House — in conjunction with Gov. Rick Scott — has made tax cuts a bigger priority.
The Senate continues to press the House to consider a form of Medicaid expansion to extend health care coverage to about 800,000 Florida residents. The House scheduled a workshop Monday on the Senate proposal, which has broad support in the business community.
Crisafulli said the House would debate the Senate plan Thursday in advance of a floor vote Friday.
All 39 House Democrats support expanding health care to the uninsured. That means 22 House Republicans would have to support the Senate plan for it to win a majority of votes in the House –- an unlikely scenario.
Scott’s latest proposal would slash state aid to public hospitals, and the biggest losers would be Tampa General, All Children’s in St. Petersburg, Jackson Memorial in Miami and Broward General Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. Those proposed reductions, totaling $214 million next year, are seen as a move by Scott to ensure passage of his top priority of nearly $700 million in tax cuts, but it quickly drew Senate resistance.
“Are we really going to blow the budget up over tax cuts?” Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, told the Associated Press. “The dilemma for the Legislature is, do we shore up the health care system or do we cut their funding and use the resources dedicated to that to fund tax cuts?”
Scott visited an elementary school in Miami Monday and called on the Legislature to carry out his other big campaign promise, to boost per student funding to a record-high $7,176 per student for next year.
“We have the funds to do it. This is the special session. Now is the time to do it,” Scott said at Dr. Carlos J. Finlay Elementary School in southwest Miami-Dade.
The session is scheduled to end on Saturday, June 20, at a cost to taxpayers of about $75,000 a day, or a maximum cost of $1.5 million, if legislative leaders approve members’ lodging and meals for all 20 days.
Eight legislators with scheduling conflicts were excused from the first day of the session.
They included two of Crisafulli’s top lieutenants: House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, and House Rules Committee Chairman Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who had previously scheduled a cruise and said he would be “on international waters” through June 9.