Normally, the next-to-last week of the legislative session would be spent putting the pieces in place for the ceremonial handkerchief drop on the final day of the annual gathering. Lawmakers would be hammering out a budget agreement — with a setback likely to happen over the weekend — and deals on major legislation would be struck.
This has not been a normal session.
Lawmakers are still trying to get to where they can start negotiations on the state spending plan, and next Friday’s scheduled conclusion of the legislative session long ago became a milestone instead of a finish line. The House and Senate are still an entire health-insurance program and billions of dollars apart on the budget.
Some major legislation is starting to get closed out, but other issues are still looming — and getting close to a resolution on reforming the troubled Department of Corrections is cold comfort when lawmakers know they’re going to be back in Tallahassee at some point in May. Or June.
Those who work in the Capitol often express annoyance at the nighttime and weekend meetings that come with the annual budget negotiations. But as they get a taste of quieter days in the final weeks of the session, some of them likely wouldn’t mind a little bit more noise.
HOW TO DANCE WITHOUT DANCING
House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, infamously delivered a blunt warning to the Senate about its Medicaid expansion alternative early this month: “We’re not dancing.” And while that might be true as far as it goes — the House has shown no signs that it will give in on the program — the two chambers are beginning to look at each from across the dance floor.
The closest thing to a breakthrough that lawmakers had seen in weeks came Thursday, when the House sent an initial offer to the Senate on the broad outlines of a budget.
There is still no agreement on some of the biggest obstacles to a deal, especially when it comes to the Senate’s plan to use Medicaid expansion dollars to help lower-income Floridians purchase private health insurance, but the discussions are something resembling progress.
“While that conversation is a little narrow for our taste right now, at least we’re talking,” said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
But a key piece of the puzzle could remain at least partially outstanding until after the state’s new budget year begins July 1: With the state submitting a concrete model for the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program to federal officials on Monday, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will not be able to give a final answer to the state by June 30.
Not that some Florida officials weren’t willing to try.
“We are expediting our submission of this LIP model in order to help CMS speed up their decision,” said Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Liz Dudek. “CMS knows that our budget depends on their rapid response to this model.”
Lawmakers are hoping to get some signs about how much money they can expect from a new version of LIP, currently a $2.2 billion program, set to expire June 30, that is largely used to cover the expenses of uninsured, low-income Floridians who show up at hospitals needing treatment.
The negotiations also followed a tit-for-tat set of meetings Tuesday morning. At a gathering of the full Senate during what was to be a meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee, lawmakers heard a gloomy picture of what would happen to the state’s economy if the upper chamber’s proposal wasn’t adopted.
Meanwhile, House leaders urged their members to hold strong in the face of an onslaught from business groups, hospitals and editorial boards.
And Gov. Rick Scott said he was ready to call a special session to pass a continuation budget — even if no one in the Capitol had ever heard of a continuation budget.
“If the House and Senate fail to agree on allocations and begin a budget process that can be completed in an extended session, then I will call the House and Senate into a special session to pass a budget that continues current year funding levels for critical services like education, law enforcement, children services, and transportation,” Scott said.
The governor also started calling Republican senators separately into his office to threaten vetoes and use a spreadsheet containing hospital profits to try to get his way. Senators didn’t sound terribly intimidated.
“It tends to galvanize the membership around their president. The most dangerous guy in Tallahassee is always the guy with no hope. So when you extinguish the flame of hope from the members, you give them no reason to negotiate,” Lee said. “So my encouragement would be for us all to put all this behind us and move forward. And that comes from someone who doesn’t entirely have clean hands.”
With the budget and the negotiating leverage it provides in limbo and time beginning to evaporate, lawmakers started getting creative this week. And that meant so-called legislative “trains,” where multiple bills are combined into single packages. While meant to boost the odds of particular provisions making it into law, the trains just as often derail.
In the Senate Appropriations Committee, more than dozen individual bills eventually glommed onto a single measure (SB 948) that gained approval from the panel. But not before an agreement between Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and state colleges attracted some controversy.
Negron has been on a crusade in recent years to dial back the number of four-year degrees offered by state colleges, which are largely two-year institutions. After Negron — who could become Senate president after the 2016 elections — threatened more sweeping legislative action, he and the colleges made a deal.
The agreement would explicitly state that four-year degrees are a secondary mission of the colleges and would cap the share of a school’s enrollment devoted to four-year programs, based on where they stand now.
“I think there’s plenty of room for growth, but it isn’t unrestrained, unbridled growth,” Negron said.
Negron has said the increase in four-year programs competes with state universities. Others say the programs are a low-cost alternative for students who aren’t necessarily fresh out of high school.
“Seventy-five percent of the people who earn baccalaureate degrees at our state college system are over 25 years old,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who is perhaps not coincidentally Negron’s opponent in the Senate presidency race. “In our state university system, 75 percent of those who earn them are under 25 years old. It’s a separate market.”
On Thursday and Friday, the House started its own education train, this one on the floor, when it attached charter school legislation and a proposal dealing with school uniforms to a wide-ranging school choice bill (HB 1145) that has caused some concerns for Democrats.
The bill, which passed on an 80-36 vote, would allow parents to send their children to any school in the state that hasn’t reached capacity, and it would allow non-teachers to enter the classroom in full-time jobs related to their field of expertise — an accountant, for example, teaching a finance class.
“You’re doing a good waltz and you’re doing a bad waltz,” said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. “And when you do that, the dance doesn’t look good.”
Trains were also shaping up on water policy and health-care legislation.
As the days until the end of session ticked away, lawmakers were also considering another kind of timeline: imposing a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. The bill (HB 633) is headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk after being approved on a party-line vote by the Senate and an almost party-line vote by the House.
“This is not a procedure — it is a life,” said Rep. Jimmie Smith, R-Inverness. “Representative (Jennifer) Sullivan, the greatest consequence of your bill is a beautiful baby.”
Lawmakers earlier this week approved adding exceptions for victims of rape, incest, domestic violence or human trafficking to the bill. However, those victims could only get waivers of the 24-hour waiting period if they can produce police reports, restraining orders, medical records or other documentation.
“All of this documentation is unnecessary government intrusion into the lives of women,” said Sen. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando.
“This is not a reflection period — this is a 24-hour ban,” said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.
STORY OF THE WEEK: House and Senate leaders continued a standoff on the state’s budget for the coming fiscal year, but seemed to be making progress by the end of the week.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “The relationship I have with Richard Corcoran, I think, is excellent. I would define it as strictly platonic, despite the fact that we have date night every Wednesday night and share a bottle of wine, a cigar and talk a little bit about what’s going on here and more broadly the political landscape.”—Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, on his relationship with his House counterpart.