Florida House abruptly adjourns session early, saying impasse is insurmountable

Florida state Sens. Nancy Detert, from left, Maria Sachs, Joe Negron, Bill Montford and Jack Latvala huddle in the aisle Tuesday as word spread that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members to go home.
Florida state Sens. Nancy Detert, from left, Maria Sachs, Joe Negron, Bill Montford and Jack Latvala huddle in the aisle Tuesday as word spread that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli told members to go home.
Published April 29, 2015


Florida's Legislature collapsed into chaos Tuesday as the House unilaterally ended the annual session with more than three days left, leaving dozens of major bills dead and escalating tensions between the House and Senate over their health care stalemate.

The state Senate responded by remaining in session for two more hours and announcing plans to return Wednesday, an attempt to send the message that they are willing to work through the impasse that has bitterly divided Republicans, and frayed emotions.

"Nobody won today," said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, after the Senate adjourned for the day. "Nobody won. Taxpayers lost. It's an unfortunate turn of events."

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, gaveled the legislative session to a close at 1:15 p.m. Tuesday. "We didn't get everything we wanted, and we won't get everything that we hoped, but we have done all that we can do for this session," he said. He then told House members to go home "until the Senate decides they are ready to negotiate."

It marked the first time in Florida's modern history that one chamber shut down and went home on a different day than the other in a regular session. Adjournment records go back only to 1971.

The House's early exit left unfinished major policy bills that would have rewritten the state's water policy, decided how to spend money from the Amendment 1 environmental measure, increased economic and educational options for people with special needs, reformed the state prison system, revised ethics rules at the Public Service Commission and provided financial benefits to charter schools.

The presiding officers of each chamber must now agree to come back in special session in order to complete the state budget — the only bill they are required to pass each year by the June 30 deadline — or Gov. Rick Scott could order them back together.

At the heart of the dispute is the question of whether to expand Medicaid to draw down federal money to provide health care for 850,000 uninsured residents who must otherwise rely on charity care. The federal government is phasing out a program to reimburse hospitals that provide care for low-income or indigent patients, known as the Low Income Pool, or LIP, as it shifts to new programs provided by the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare.

As part of the budget negotiations, the Senate wants to expand Medicaid and impose new requirements on low-income residents as it phases out LIP funds. The House rejects that idea, arguing that Medicaid is a "broken" program and prefers instead to rely on the federal LIP funds — at least for another year.

The governor, who has sided with the House on the Medicaid debate and called individual senators to his office last week to threaten vetoes of their priorities if he didn't get his tax cut bill, had little to say Tuesday.

"We understand why the House did what they did. We will see what the Senate does tomorrow," Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

Crisafulli told the House he would never ask them "to vote for something I wouldn't vote for myself," and that is why he hasn't brought the issue up for a full vote on the floor. "I will not force anyone to expand Medicaid," he said.

"The Senate continues to assert their demand that we agree to expand Medicaid before we can get started on budget negotiations," Crisafulli said, implying that Gardiner misled him. "He never told me it was going to be a prerequisite to our budget negotiations."

Crisafulli noted that "with more time and more information," the Senate will be in a better position to accomplish budget negotiations.

Gardiner responded: "The Senate's position hasn't changed a bit." Other senators raised doubts about how easy it will be to heal wounds.

"The immaturity that they've shown in the House today is a testimony to term limits,'' said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. He scolded the House leaders for being "immature" and blasted House GOP members for following their leaders "like lemmings … There's no check and balance on leadership."

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, said the House's decision to leave early would "be hard to explain back home" and will deepen the divide between the two chambers.

"Think of the psychology of being jilted at the altar," he said. "How many people recover from that?"

The decision by the Florida House to adjourn early was known among just a small group of the lobbying corps, who positioned themselves in the chamber for the historic announcement.

It was known among the House's leadership, which had the House Majority Office prepare a four-page document answering what they expected would be commonly asked questions about the House's position on the budget impasse and Medicaid.

But the decision took several members of the majority party in the House by surprise, exposing the rift that has been simmering under the surface for weeks.

"We were given no notice ahead of time, no indication that it was coming," said Rep. Ray Pilon, R-Sarasota. "I was very surprised and very disappointed that it was handled that way."

Pilon, a retired sheriff's deputy, represents a moderate Republican district. He said he thought a majority of his constituents favored the Senate's approach.

The Senate was also kept in the dark. Two hours before the House shut down, Gardiner asked Crisafulli if he could dispatch a team of senators to begin discussions on "how we land this plane," Gardiner told reporters later Tuesday. The next thing he knew, he said, Crisafulli left him a message on his personal cellphone that the House was closing its doors.

For many important policy bills, the Senate's decision to return today is mostly a symbolic gesture.

The House's early ending means that much major legislation is dead, including the House's $690 million package of tax cuts, Crisafulli's top priority to rewrite water policy in Florida, and a Public Service Commission reform package that includes $600 million in refunds to customers of Duke Energy, many of them in the Tampa Bay area.

House Democratic leader Mark Pafford questioned the decision to quit early, but said it will squarely focus attention on whether the state should expand Medicaid before the completion of the budget by June 30.

"If I'm the Senate and I'm watching the House and it abruptly quits, that's kind of like the child in the sandbox (who takes) their toy away,'' said Pafford, of West Palm Beach. "I don't know if it's a thoughtful reaction to what's going on."

Rep. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami, said the House reaction "seemed like a temper tantrum."

"I don't think any of us thought we would come to agreement by Friday, but why would the speaker send us home when there is a lot of policy work left to be done,'' he said.

Stunned lobbyists who filled the lobby between the House and Senate chambers said they could not recall another time when one side left with more than three days left in the session.

"I've never seen this one before. Not on a Tuesday," said Ron Book, who has lobbied the Legislature since the 1980s.

As House members scrambled to clear their desks, Crisafulli met with reporters to explain the House decision.

He criticized the Senate for doing too little work and said he asked his staff to calculate how much time both chambers spent in floor votes this session. He said the Senate was on the floor about half as often as the House.

"We've done a lot of work in this chamber," he said. "We sent somewhere in the neighborhood of 275 to 280 bills over to the Senate. And there are a lot of bills sitting there that are House bills, so at this point it's important for us to go back and reset. We look forward to coming back and negotiating a budget."

The shutdown left stranded about a dozen House pages, high school and middle school students who spend a week in Tallahassee serving as messengers for legislators.

"I know you thought you'd be here all week,'' a House staffer told the group outside the speaker's office. "But you need to call your parents and have them come pick you up."

Earlier in the day, Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, had a recommendation for the opening music to accompany Tuesday's session: Carrie Underwood's Jesus, Take the Wheel. It got 34 retweets and 36 favorites during the day.

After the House adjourned, he was perplexed.

"I don't understand the dynamic between the House and Senate that caused this, but obviously a rift has occurred,'' Brandes said. "I think we need to work to rebuild trust between the chambers. This is a relationship issue as much as it is a policy issue."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Kathleen McGrory and Michael Auslen contributed to this report.