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Legislature Ending Amid Acrimony, Standoff

Apr 30, 2015
Originally published on April 30, 2015 8:58 am

The annual session of the Florida Legislature limped to a premature end Wednesday amid finger-pointing and threats of possible lawsuits.

The House abruptly adjourned a day earlier, with leaders contending there was no reason to remain at the Capitol as long as they continue to have a stalemate with Senate leaders over a new state budget and health care.

But Senate President Andy Gardiner sent a letter to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli asking legislators to come back to the Capitol and asserting they were in violation of the state constitution. The session was scheduled to end Friday.

Gardiner's letter called the decision by the House to unilaterally adjourn three and half days early an "unprecedented" act that is possibly illegal because of a clause that says neither chamber can adjourn for more than 72 hours without a resolution approved by both the House and Senate.

Gardiner told his own members that the Senate may ask the Florida Supreme Court to rule on whether the House actions were legal, even though he acknowledged that a decision could not come in time to salvage this year's session. After Gardiner told senators about the letter, the Senate adjourned, with no likely timetable for return.

"It's wrong for the state of Florida to essentially say that one chamber is not relevant, 'take what we give you, and we're taking our ball home,'" Gardiner said.

The session end leaves the state without a budget and the looming possibility of a shutdown if there is no agreement by June 30. It is easily the deepest divide that has gripped the Legislature since Republicans won control nearly 20 years ago.

The fractious ending also killed off dozens of unresolved legislative proposals dealing with everything from water, to prisons, to help for disabled children.

Despite Gardiner's request that the House return, there were no plans to do so, said a spokesman for Crisafulli. The House also disagreed with the Senate's assertion that its early adjournment was possibly unconstitutional.

Crisafulli sent his own letter to Gardiner that said no chamber can "dictate" what legislation should be passed.

He said he understands that the Senate leader is "angry," but said he still wants to work out a budget deal that could result in a new spending plan being in place by the end of the state's fiscal year.

But Crisafulli blamed the stalemate on the Senate insistence to tie completion of a new budget to a Senate proposal to expand health care coverage to 800,000 Floridians. The money to pay for the health coverage is linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul and is opposed by the House and Gov. Rick Scott. Senate leaders have backed the expansion because of the looming loss of more than $1 billion in federal money that now goes to hospitals.

"We can have disagreements on policy issues; each year the House and Senate have plenty," wrote Crisafulli. "At the end of the day, if the two sides don't agree, bills die. That is how the process works. ... I remain willing to be your partner. I told you that the House could not pass Obamacare expansion. It's not something that I can force them to pass. It's not about a single member. This is a matter of the House exercising its constitutional duty to represent those who have elected us."

The Senate spent several hours working Wednesday, with senators in many instances expressing their deep anger at their House counterparts. Several high-priority bills — including one sought by Criasfulli — were amended and sent back over to the closed House. Senators said they would not pass bills they did not agree fully with just because the House had left town.

"We can't just simply pass the bill because the House of Representatives or the leaders in the House say take it or leave it," said Sen. Rene Garcia, a Miami Republican.