Florida legislators shouldn't get away with saying they didn't raise taxes in this election season. An unfair deal pushed by the incoming Senate president all but assures that Pinellas and at least several other counties will be forced to raise property taxes to pay for a bureaucratic mess made by the state. But don't blame Pinellas County commissioners if it comes to that. Blame the Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott, who should have vetoed the scheme but signed it into law.
Credit card companies can't come back to consumers a decade later and tell them: We found a bill we think we forgot to charge you for and we're going to withdraw the amount from your next paycheck. But that's exactly what Republicans in the Legislature and Scott agreed to do to Florida's counties in HB 5301.
Rather than fix up front an error-plagued bill collection system for Medicaid or better monitor its performance, lawmakers voted to begin directly garnisheeing the counties' share of state revenue to cover a decade's worth of disputed bills as well as future Medicaid bills. Under state law, counties are required to help cover costs after one of their residents is in the hospital for more than 10 days.
The total hit to Pinellas County: an estimated $68.9 million over six years. It's particularly galling that many of those bills may not even be owed. Several counties that have been allowed to view their past and current billings have uncovered that the Agency for Health Care Administration's billing system is rife with problems. The issues include multiple duplicative bills and a computer system that didn't recognize that ZIP codes can cross county lines; wasn't properly displaying residential addresses and failed to capture the notes counties made on why they disputed a bill.
None of that seemed to bother Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, the incoming Senate president who tucked the collection plan into a budget-related bill that also expands subsidized health insurance options for children and other Medicaid reforms to help inoculate it from a gubernatorial veto. Scott, in his signing statement, promised to try to mitigate the counties' concerns. He has ordered the AHCA to work with counties to review filings, but he has limited ability to lessen the law's impact.
The situation prompted a rare sight in Clearwater recently: Three county commissioners — including tea party-backed Norm Roche — agreed immediately that the county will have to increase the property tax rate to help pay the bills. The only good news for property owners is that the anticipated 5.2 percent increase, which would still need more votes to pass, would be offset for some property owners by an anticipated 3 percent average decrease in property values.
Seven Pinellas legislators, all of them Republican incumbents expected to be on November's ballot, supported holding the counties hostage for these suspect charges: Sen. Jack Latvala and Reps. Larry Ahern, Jeff Brandes, Richard Corcoran, Jim Frishe, Ed Hooper and Peter Nehr. They will likely try to tell voters they didn't raise taxes in Tallahassee. They will likely be wrong, and county commissioners should continue to remind voters where to direct their complaints.