TALLAHASSEE -- Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday he would rescind his order to cut state payments for disability services after House and Senate leaders agreed to fill a $174 million deficit.
The announcement comes two weeks after Scott informed lawmakers he would invoke emergency powers and cut up to 40 percent the rates charged by group homes and case workers who help the developmentally disabled.
“There are so many parents who can breathe a sigh of relief because they can get the services they need,” said Kingsley Ross, an advocate and lobbyist for Sunrise Community, a Miami-based group home operator. “It’s fantastic.”
Scott said he had a deal with the House and Senate to pay for the projected deficit. The House budget proposal included the money, but the Senate’s did not.
“I was concerned we would run out of money,” Scott said. “I will be pulling my emergency order and making sure that our providers have the funds that they need to make sure that they keep taking care of individuals who really need this care.”
After Scott’s order, Senate President Mike Haridopolos said he was looking into the “legalities” of paying for the gap.
“I’m very sensitive to this,” said Haridopolos, a Republican who is challenging Sen. Bill Nelson for the U.S. Senate in 2012.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander on Thursday confirmed the Senate would fill the deficit, but that the Agency for Persons with Disabilities was on notice.
“No agency will ever overspend its budget authority,” said Alexander, R-Lake Wales. “It will not happen again.”
The agency provides services to about 30,000 Floridians with cerebral palsy, autism and Down syndrome. More than 19,000 people are on a waiting list and receive no services.
Scott had ordered his inspector general to investigate the agency’s deficit in February, the same day his pick to run the agency, Carl Littlefield, resigned under the threat of a difficult Senate confirmation. Scott’s administration has since created another job for Littlefield at the Department of Children and Families.
The deficit — which exceeds the agency’s spending authority by nearly 20 percent — is partly the legacy of lawsuits, poor planning by the Legislature and a nearly $20 million veto by Scott’s predecessor, Charlie Crist, who starved the program of savings when he refused to trim provider rates last summer.
“This gives the agency enough to pay its bill through the end of the year and means it doesn’t start the year with a deficit, which it has the last five years,” Ross said.
Scott’s decision to cut rates sparked protests. In Tallahassee last week, hundreds of protesters rallied outside the Capitol and then crammed into Scott’s office. Some group homes announced they would have to close.
“Maybe they realized they can only push people so far and they can only cut so much,” said Dennis Shelt, who runs Community Circles Inc., which provides services to the developmentally disabled in St. Petersburg and Clearwater. “There are people around the state who wouldn’t survive the kind of cuts they were talking about.”
Had Scott done nothing, the agency was scheduled to go broke in mid-May.
“It’s real frustrating,” Scott said Tuesday during a visit to the agency, “to come to office and within the first three months have to do an emergency order to figure out how we get a handle so we don’t run out of money before the end of the fiscal year.”