They PURRED like cats, listened to an auto-reader named Mary speed-read bills and honored golfer Jack Nicklaus. They raised university tuition, outlawed Internet sweepstakes cafes and banned texting while driving. They gave state workers raises for the first time in seven years and spent millions on pet projects such as a rowing center in Sarasota, a Bay of Pigs museum in Miami and an aquarium in Clearwater. But state lawmakers refused to accept $51 billion in federal money to provide health care to 1 million uninsured Floridians, and that leaves a permanent stain on the 2013 Florida Legislature.
The annual legislative session adjourned Friday with smiles and handshakes, as lawmakers celebrated a year in which a rebounding economy meant more tax revenue to spend after years of painful spending cuts. The $74.5 billion budget includes more than $1 billion in new money for public schools. Prior cuts to universities have been restored and then some. But while billions of federal dollars are flowing into Florida for education, transportation and other needs, House Republicans refused to take the federal Medicaid expansion money to provide health coverage for low-income residents.
Help for the connected
The Legislature is not above offering a helping hand. It allowed Duke Energy to keep charging its customers for a nuclear plant that may never be built. It gave manufacturers tax breaks sought by Gov. Rick Scott in a bill that is constitutionally suspect. It provided charter schools run by private groups millions in public money to build and maintain schools. But House Speaker Will Weatherford would not accept federal money to help nearly 400,000 childless adults making less than $12,000 a year buy health insurance.
The contrast is striking between the voices who are heard in Tallahassee and those who aren't. For the alcohol lobbyists, lawmakers lifted the ban on large wine canisters. They resolved a long-running dispute between optometrists and ophthalmologists. Only a tie vote in the Senate prevented private companies from having an easier time taking over public schools. But there was no lobbyist for St. Petersburg's John Reddick, who makes less than $15,000 a year, has no health insurance and paid $100 to see a doctor when he had stomach pains.
Legislators did not ignore working Floridians and their health care concerns. They temporarily banned cites and counties from requiring local employers to offer paid sick leave after 50,000 Orange County voters signed petitions asking for a voter referendum on the issue. Lawmakers also punished counties such as Hillsborough that have taxed themselves to treat the poor. They skimmed off millions in federal matching money to redistribute elsewhere, costing Hillsborough County $7.4 million that should go to Tampa General Hospital, St. Joseph's and other hospitals. Yet Republicans complain Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act redistributes tax dollars to help low-income Americans.
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Blinded by ideology
Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz proclaimed the legislative session a grand success because virtually all of their priorities were approved: overhauling ethics and campaign finance rules, changing early voting and other election procedures, and transforming high school graduation requirements. By their scorecard, the Legislature's accomplishments outweigh the failure to accept Medicaid expansion money. But no list of bills passed offsets the loss of $51 billion in federal money and of health coverage for so many Floridians. Ask Kim Gardner of Pasco County, whose family is uninsured and gets by on $16,000 a year from its fence and tree service, if she considers the legislative session a success.
Even Scott had an epiphany on Medicaid expansion. The Republican governor fought the Obama administration and the Affordable Care Act before he ran for office, and he took the state's battle to the U.S. Supreme Court and lost. Yet Scott concluded he could not support rejecting the federal money and denying health coverage to so many. After Republican legislators refused to expand Medicaid, the governor endorsed a conservative alternative approved 38-1 by the Senate to use the federal Medicaid money to help buy private insurance for low-income residents. That is similar to a plan approved by Arkansas that the Obama administration has signaled it would accept.
Weatherford and his Republican colleagues in the House still refused to budge. They could not rise above rigid ideology and their disdain for the Obama administration. They would not acknowledge the financial benefits for state government and the economy. And they did not see the faces of Floridians like Jesse Sarell of Tampa, who makes about $250 a week unloading trucks and performing other hard labor and is uninsured.
Florida can do better. The Medicaid expansion is supported by the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries, the health care industry and the majority of state voters. Legislators should hear those many voices as they return home to their districts. Republican lawmakers in districts that President Barack Obama won or with other political aspirations — Reps. Ed Hooper of Clearwater, Kathleen Peters of South Pasadena and Ross Spano of Dover come to mind — should listen particularly closely. Are they going to represent their constituents or keep blindly following House leaders?
Scott's turn to act
The next move is up to the governor. Scott took the right position but the wrong approach on Medicaid expansion. He has to become more aggressive, and he should use all of the tools of the governor's office to get the House's attention. That means vetoing bills and special projects. That means one-on-one meetings with lawmakers. And that means enlisting the business community to help make the case that accepting $51 billion in federal money to provide health coverage to 1 million Floridians is fiscally responsible and morally right.
Scott is seeking re-election, and it's time he backed up his words with action. He wants to appeal to mainstream voters, and the Senate Medicaid proposal represents middle ground. He wants to create jobs, and expanding health coverage does that. The governor should call a special session of the Legislature to address Medicaid expansion, and he should keep lawmakers in Tallahassee all summer if that's what it takes to persuade them to do what's right for Florida.