State Politics

Senate panel OKs $68.6B budget plan

TALLAHASSEE — A budget bill cleared a state Sen- ate committee Thursday with a contingency plan that would add $880 million in spending, mostly for health care, if Congress sends $880 million in additional Medicaid money Florida’s way.

That would free up state money earmarked for Medicaid for other spending, but only if Congress extends a temporary boost in the federal share of the joint health care program for low-income patients.

The Senate’s “Plan A” is for a $68.6 billion budget. “Plan B” would top $69 billion and prevent or reduce many of the spending cuts anticipated for hospitals, nursing homes and other health care programs.

Education and other parts of the budget also would benefit. State libraries, which would get nothing under Plan A, would get $15 million under the contingency plan.

The U.S. Senate has passed a jobs bill that includes the additional Medicaid dollars, but the House has not yet acted.

“It’s been a bit of a quandary to know how to handle the current discussion in Congress,” said Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales.

“We put these amendments in as a place holder for where we would be in the event that bill does pass the House and is signed by the president.”

Alexander said the chances are the added federal money will be approved some time in early April.

“We hope they would do is sooner rather than later,” he said.

Legislative budget writers previously estimated the half-year extension would total $1.2 billion but the forecast recently was reduced, Alexander said.

His committee approved the budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

It now goes to the Senate floor for a vote next week.

The House also is set to vote then on its version of the budget, which weighs in at $1.4 billion less than the Senate’s Plan A.

One key difference is the House bill includes a 3 percent pay cut for state employees.

The Senate version leaves state worker pay unchanged, making a fourth year without a raise.