Gov. Rick Scott calls for special session, says tax cuts may be sacrificed to end stalemate

Gov. Scott says his tax cuts are in jeopardy.
Gov. Scott says his tax cuts are in jeopardy.
Published April 22, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — Blaming the federal government for Florida's financial woes, Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday said he was prepared to call Florida lawmakers back for a special session to complete the budget — and even encourage them to pass a bare-bones budget if necessary.

Scott also suggested one of his top priorities was in jeopardy: $673 million in tax cuts.

"If (lawmakers) fail to cut taxes in this legislative session, it is clear that cutting taxes by more than $1 billion will become the top priority for next year's legislative session when there is no longer any uncertainty around health care funding, which is already over 40 percent of our state's $77 billion budget," he said in a statement.

The statement came as the Senate and House convened rare meetings — one in the open and the other out of the public eye — but showed no signs of ending the budget showdown that has crippled the legislative session.

During a closed-door meeting, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, could be heard encouraging the Republican caucus to hold firm in its opposition to Medicaid expansion, one of the key sticking points of the session.

"We're asking you to trust us," an Associated Press reporter heard Crisafulli saying.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, meanwhile, received a standing ovation from the entire Senate — and applause from lobbyists and activists in the audience — when he said the Senate would continue its fight for expanded coverage.

One of Gardiner's top lieutenants, Senate budget chief Tom Lee, called out the House and Scott for failing to discuss the issue in a public meeting.

"I do not think that the House or the governor wants this blood on their hands when this cart goes into the ditch because people will not come to the table and have an honest political discussion about legitimate differences we have over health care funding," said Lee, R-Brandon.

With just 10 days left before the 60-day session is scheduled to end, the House and Senate remain at odds over how to handle a potential $1.3 billion hole in the state health care budget.

Its source: the federal government's plan to end the Low Income Pool, a program that helps hospitals cover the costs of treating uninsured and Medicaid patients.

If the program expires on June 30, as it is scheduled to do under an agreement with the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), it could result in an $86 million budget cut for Tampa General Hospital and a $200 million budget cut for Jackson Health System in Miami. Children's hospitals throughout the state stand to lose $117 million.

State health officials have formally petitioned the federal government to continue the program and presented a Senate plan to distribute the funds more evenly than in the past. But it remains unclear how the Legislature would provide support to hospitals if the funding fell through.

The Senate has advanced a plan to expand subsidized health care coverage to more than 800,000 low-income Floridians by creating a new state-run marketplace for private insurance. Senate leaders say their proposal would reduce uncompensated care because fewer uninsured people would show up at emergency rooms.

The more conservative House, however, opposes the idea. House leaders consider it a surrogate for the politically charged Obamacare.

The House's position may factor into the future of Florida's LIP program. Federal health officials recently said their decision on LIP would be tied to whether Florida accepts federal Medicaid expansion dollars to extend coverage, prompting Scott to threaten legal action against CMS for coercing Florida.

In a rare move, Gardiner asked the entire Senate to attend an appropriations meeting Tuesday to discuss the issues. More than 100 lobbyists, community activists and reporters also attended.

During the meeting, chief economist Amy Baker said the loss of LIP funds would hurt the state economy because hospitals would likely have to cut back on services and jobs.

"This is a big enough change to the economy that we can see it," Baker said.

Carrying out the Senate's expansion plan, she added, would result in $1.2 billion in savings over the next five years.

What happened during the gathering of House Republicans was more of a mystery.

Some lawmakers — including Reps. Frank Artiles of Miami, Jennifer Sullivan of Mount Dora, Mike Hill of Pensacola Beach, and Chris Sprowls of Palm Harbor — refused to say what was discussed.

"We talked about the history of Medicaid and LIP," said Republican Party of Florida chairman and Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill. "And the information we got is going to be the same information you're getting."

That information included a nine-step guide on how to defend the House's double-down rejection of Medicaid expansion. Among the talking points: "Nothing should give our state more pause in this debate than the Obama administration's attempt to force Florida to expand Medicaid under Obamacare in order to receive LIP funding."

Asked Tuesday why the meeting was closed if he was instructing them how to act on future legislation, Crisafulli said there is no legislation in the House on Medicaid expansion.

"Our general counsel went through our talking points," Crisafulli said. "I was very scripted. He said everything we were doing in that meeting was perfectly within the confines of the law."

House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, said the closed door meeting was evidence the Republican caucus is divided.

"There's turmoil," Pafford said. "There's a growing perception that they aren't all singing from the same sheets of music. A closed door meeting like this sends a signal that there's discord."

Adding to the confusion was Scott's statement, which was issued late Tuesday.

In addition to saying he would readily call a special session, Scott, a former chief executive of the nation's largest private hospital chain, said he would consider convening a Commission of Healthcare and Hospital Funding "to examine the revenues, insurance and health care providers and how any taxpayer money contributes to the profits or losses of these institutions."

Neither Gardiner nor Lee, who met with Scott Monday evening, knew about the statement before it was released to reporters.

Gardiner called Scott's proposed commission "irrelevant" to discussions taking place around LIP and Medicaid expansion, and warned against forcing legislative leaders into a special session.

"It's easy to call a special session," Gardiner said. "They are hard to get out of."

Times/Herald staff writers Michael Auslen, Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Kathleen McGrory at Follow @kmcgrory.