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Florida Lawmakers Convene Special Session To Wrangle Budget Issues

Jun 2, 2015
Originally published on June 2, 2015 8:05 am
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

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And I'm Renee Montagne. Next, we'll hear about a big budget battle, but it's not happening in Washington, D.C. There's a showdown in Florida right now, even though the state House of Representatives, its Senate and the governor's mansion are all held by Republicans. The sticking point is health care and how to provide it to hundreds of thousands of low-income Florida residents who don't have coverage. From Miami, NPR's Greg Allen reports.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Florida's running a budget surplus this year, but they're still fighting. Under the state constitution, Florida lawmakers must deliver a budget by July 1. Most years, the legislature completes the task on schedule. This session, though, the process broke down. The sticking point is Medicaid in a push by Republicans in Florida's Senate to expand eligibility for the program under the Affordable Care Act. But while the Senate wants it, the House and Gov. Rick Scott do not. Republican leaders deadlocked over the issue and something unusual happened. House leaders called an early end to their legislative session and went home without a budget. Yesterday, after a month off, House and Senate members were back in Tallahassee for a special session.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The House will come to order (slams gavel).

ALLEN: Senate leaders now have tweaked their plan to extend coverage, saying it's not Medicaid, but an alternative that they call a free-market approach that requires recipients to work or be looking for work. That's a provision other states have proposed, but which the federal government has never approved. Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner thinks it's a plan that can win the support of Republicans in the House.

ANDY GARDINER: It's about as conservative, free-market as you're ever going to get and the time is right. And some will say, well, the federal government will never approve it - well, let's find out.

ALLEN: After weeks of impasse, there was some progress this week. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli agreed to hold a vote by the end of the week. But Crisafulli said he doesn't expect his members to go along with the Senate plan.

STEVE CRISAFULLI: Well, it's still Medicaid expansion. I mean, uses the Medicaid population and uses the Medicaid dollars and it uses the program rules. It's Medicaid expansion. I would say a majority of this chamber sees problems with the Senate's plan.

ALLEN: But there's another factor legislators have to consider this week - a federal program that pays hospitals for care provided to uninsured patients - the low-income pool - is being ended. The Obama administration says it's being phased out and being replaced by expanded Medicaid coverage under the Affordable Care Act. The way things stand now, Florida looks to see its federal support for charity care cut by more than a billion dollars. So if Chrisafulli and others in Florida's House refuse to sign onto Medicaid expansion, they'll have to look to the state coffers to make up at least some of that billion-dollar shortfall. It's a quandary that's left some in Florida, including Gov. Scott, worried legislative leaders may not be able to agree on a budget, raising the possibility of a government shutdown. Scott recently ordered state agencies to identify important needs if no budget is approved. While most observers say a government shutdown in Florida is unlikely, yesterday Scott said he's ready.

RICK SCOTT: I'm going to make sure that all critical services are continued.

ALLEN: Along with health care, there's another issue on the table - Gov. Scott's call for some $700 million in tax cuts. Legislators have just three weeks to come to an agreement. The special session ends on June 20. Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.