Florida Legislature to Resume Budget, Health Care Fight

With a looming deadline, Florida legislators return to the state Capitol this week promising to do what they couldn't during the 60-day regular session that ended May 1.

And that's pass a new state budget that covers everything from money for schools and hospitals to paying for child abuse investigations.

Legislative leaders are already promising that they will pass a budget during the 20-day session that starts Monday. They have until the end of June or parts of state government could be shut down.

"We're going to get the budget done and we feel pretty strongly about that," Senate President Andy Gardiner said.

But the Republicans who lead the House and Senate and Republican Gov. Rick Scott still remain deeply divided on everything from health care spending to tax cuts. The budget stalemate, which began over money for hospitals and health care coverage, could doom Scott's priorities, including a substantial tax cut package.

Scott maintains that legislators can craft a budget that includes enough money for hospitals without sacrificing nearly $700 million in tax cuts, which includes a cut in cellphone taxes that would save the average Floridian more than $40 a year.

"I think we have the money to be able to do that," Scott told business leaders last week.

But Scott's latest proposal would still require cuts for many public hospitals — including large ones in South Florida and some in other parts of the state that are large employers. The Scott administration has defended the proposal by pointing out that most of these hospitals will still be profitable, but the plan would also steer more money to private for-profit hospitals.

Scott once led one of the nation's largest hospital chains but he was forced out amid a federal investigation that resulted in a then-record $1.7 billion fine. He was not charged with any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said he was unaware of the problems going on underneath him.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon and the Senate budget chief, called it unlikely that senators would agree to cut money to some hospitals just to set aside enough money for Scott's tax cut package.

"Are we really going to blow the budget up over tax cuts?" Lee asked. "The dilemma for the Legislature is do we shore up the health care system, or do we cut their funding and use the resources dedicated to that to fund tax cuts?"

The budget stalemate was sparked by the impending loss of more than $1 billion in supplemental federal aid to hospitals that is to set to expire this summer.

Federal officials told Florida that they wanted the state to consider expanding Medicaid insurance as part of the agreement to extend the hospital funds. Last week, the Obama administration offered to extend Florida's hospital funds for another two years, but only at about half the amount the state received last year, saying it would not approve hospital funding for costs that that would be covered by Medicaid expansion.

Gardiner said he agrees that it is better to pay for insurance costs up front instead of paying on the "back end." The Senate has endorsed a proposal to expand health care coverage to 800,000 Floridians, but House leaders and Scott remain firmly opposed to taking federal money linked to President Barack Obama's health care overhaul. The disagreement over Medicaid expansion led the House to abruptly end the regular session three and a half days early in late April.

Senate leaders recently offered a "compromise" proposal that they expect to vote on during the special session, but it has already been immediately rejected by House Republicans.

Rep. Richard Corcoran, the Land O'Lakes Republican and House budget chief, continues to assert the Senate proposal would not provide quality health care to the working poor. He also says the proposal is nothing more than a "giveaway" to hospitals.

"This whole fight is about allowing hospitals to take over health care," said Corcoran.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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