TALLAHASSEE — As a confrontation over the state budget escalated, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Wednesday privately called several Republican senators into his office individually, threatening to veto their priorities if they failed to cooperate with his plan to lower taxes and spend more money on schools.
Scott reminded senators he wants $673 million in tax cuts and attempted to tie that to the impasse over health care policy and the state budget debate, which is sending the Legislature into overtime.
Scott showed senators a list of their local hospitals, which are expecting to draw down state and federal money to offset care for the working poor while, he asserts, they are making unreasonable profits.
The message, according to several senators who spoke with Scott: Why aren't we cutting taxes if we are willing to send taxpayer money to profitable hospitals?
"It's a legitimate question,'' said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Naples, one of the senators Scott called in for a meeting in his Capitol office. "We're passing out taxpayer money and asking the working poor to pay too. People looking at their hospital bills don't think the hospitals are suffering as much as they say they are."
Scott called senators a day after House and Senate leaders conceded that the impasse over whether the federal government will extend the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool, or LIP, program for hospitals and other health care providers will force lawmakers to extend the session to complete work on the budget.
The governor on Monday gave the federal government a proposal to revamp the LIP program that was developed by the Senate. But Scott has also sided with the House to oppose a Senate plan to use $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion funds to help low-income Floridians.
Reached later in the day, Scott would not discuss his meetings with senators. "We ought to make sure if we're taking Florida taxpayer money that it's spent the way that we can help as many people as possible having health care that they can afford and actually feel good about,'' he said.
Senators said the governor threatened to veto budget projects and bills if his tax plan was ignored. The Senate budget currently includes no tax cuts because of the $2.2 billion deficit created by the LIP program. Detert said that Scott discussed using his vetoes if he doesn't get his way, "because that is the only tool in his toolbox," but "I didn't feel it was a quid pro quo for his tax cuts."
Several senators agreed the governor was entitled to use the veto threat, but suggested it was not a productive way to resolve the impasse.
"It makes it much, much harder for us to govern collaboratively,'' said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, the Senate budget chairman. The governor should judge its bill by its merits, he said, and the veto decision "should have nothing to do with if we're at an impasse."
Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, called Scott's veto threat "the nuclear option" that "has a tendency to stop productive conversation."
"The meetings that have been held today lose him some ground in human relations," said Gaetz, a former Senate president. "There are some senators who will not take kindly to being threatened."
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said Scott's veto threat was not productive.
"That's doesn't help any more than a lawsuit does in negotiations,'' Galvano said, referring to Scott's decision last week to threaten the federal government with a planned lawsuit over LIP funding.
"Senators are committed to resolving the big issues. It's not as if there is any news that there is a veto pen on the plaza level. The more productive conversation would be one about how we protect the state from the potential losses and come to a resolution that everyone can be happy with."
Other senators noted that the governor told them he wasn't pleased at the standing ovation the Senate Appropriations Committee gave Senate President Andy Gardiner on Tuesday, a gesture of appreciation as the Senate has remained firm on its position to expand Medicaid funds.
Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has tried to foster good relations with the governor, asked to meet Scott after he heard of the governor's meetings with his colleagues, but wouldn't comment on whether he offered the governor any advice.
"Cooler heads need to prevail,'' he said. "We don't get to a solution in the media."
Senators said the governor, a former hospital chain CEO who made his fortune selling for-profit hospitals, is clearly taking aim at the hospital industry, even suggesting he will call for a special commission to examine their finances.
Holding a six-page document, compiled by the Agency for Health Care Administration, Scott pointed to the data on profit margins for local hospitals in each senator's district, senators in the private meetings told the Times/Herald.
In one column of the document is the hospital's operating revenue, in another is the operating margin and in the third is the total margin. Scott maintained that hospitals are shielding their profits.
Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospitals Alliance of Florida, which represents public hospitals, teaching hospitals and children's hospitals that care for most of the state's uninsured, questioned the governor's approach.
"You can't determine the financial strength of a hospital based on a one-year operating margin. If you look back at the most recent recession, many of the hospitals that were losing money three years ago are now doing better and reinvesting in their communities,'' he said in a statement. "Hospitals are going to have cycles and they have to prepare for them.''
It's a discussion that Senate leaders say is appropriate — but not as part of the ongoing budget battle and decision over health care policy.
Galvano said hospital funding should not be part of the current debate over LIP funding and resolving the budget stalemate, "but to do that on the cusp of a change to a major component of our health care budget is not timely."
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, who spoke to Scott over the weekend, said the governor should have had this discussion a year ago when he learned the federal government might not renew the LIP money, "but it doesn't fit into the next two weeks or the next 45 days to resolve.
Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes, the House budget chief, said he thinks that it is "imperative" that the discussion about hospital profits be included in the resolution of the LIP funding.
"We need all the facts to make a good decision,'' Corcoran said. "Maybe it's not a crisis? Maybe we'd find out that the crisis that's being driven by Medicaid and not uninsured people."
Scott said he remains optimistic the feuding factions will work out their differences and achieve his budget priorities by the end of the budget year on June 30.
"I remain optimistic all those priorities will get done,'' he told reporters. "I know what's important is the House, the Senate, (and) the governor need to find out a way to work together and that's what we talked about today."
Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Michael Auslen contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at email@example.com.