BREAKING: Florida House Shuts Down Amidst Health-Care, Budget Impasse

Florida Capitol
Credit Michael Rivera / Wikimedia Commons

 Updated 4/29 at 9:40 a.m.: 

The legislative session collapsed Tuesday amid an increasingly bitter budget fight over health-care funding, with the House abruptly adjourning and going home in a move that killed scores of bills and deepened the divide between the House and the Senate.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott filed suit against the federal government to try to stop the Obama administration from linking $2.2 billion in funding for health-care providers to a potential expansion of Medicaid.

The actions Tuesday came with little more than two months to go before Scott has to sign a spending plan to keep state government functioning after the new budget year begins July 1. The Senate has insisted that any budget agreement include a plan to use Medicaid funding to help lower-income Floridians purchase private insurance, but Scott and the House have repeatedly rejected that idea.

In remarks to the House shortly after 1 p.m., Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the House had achieved all it could during the regular session and there was no need to continue to work.

"I made a promise to you when you elected me to be your speaker that I'd never ask you to vote for something that I wouldn't vote for myself," said Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island). "Accordingly, I will not force anyone to expand Medicaid. And so for now, we stand at an impasse with the Senate. ... I do not see a need to keep you here waiting around, away from your families, away from your businesses, until the Senate decides they are ready to negotiate with us."

It was already clear that lawmakers would not finish their work on the budget, their one constitutionally required annual duty, before the session's scheduled end Friday. With the House adjourning "sine die" ---from the Latin phrase for "without day" --- the Legislature will have to return in a special session, instead of simply extending the regular one into the coming weeks.

In remarks to the Senate after the House adjourned, Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) blasted the move.

"Nobody won today," Gardiner said. "Nobody won. The taxpayers lost."

The Senate continued to work and will come back Wednesday for at least one more day, Gardiner said to a standing ovation.

"We will be here tomorrow, and we will do our job," he said. "It's what the taxpayers expect of us. And that's what we will do."

House Republicans pointed out that the House actually passed more bills this session than the Senate and had spent 24 more hours on the floor than had the Senate.

House Democrats, who have supported the Senate's plan on health-coverage expansion, said Crisafulli was being immature.

"A young child basically was sitting in the sandbox, and the toys were taken away somehow, and so we just walked away from the sandbox," said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford (D-West Palm Beach).

The chambers have been snared for weeks in a complicated showdown over the state's health-care budget. The state is still waiting to hear back from the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services on whether the agency will approve a plan to extend the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool, or LIP, program past June 30. LIP is largely used to cover the expenses of uninsured, low-income Floridians who show up at hospitals needing treatment.

But federal officials and the Senate have said the fate of LIP and the Senate's $2.8 billion Medicaid-funded expansion plan are linked, while Scott and the House have pushed for the two issues to be separated.

The early adjournment sparked a new round of recriminations about who was responsible for the breakdown. Crisafulli said Tuesday that Gardiner had not let on before the session that the coverage expansion would be a priority.

"Keep in mind, they did not say this would hold the budget hostage before we started this session, and it's clear that it has become a position very important to the Senate president. But he never told me it was going to be a prerequisite to our budget negotiations," Crisafulli said.

Speaking to reporters after the session, Gardiner dismissed that.

"First of all, I don't have to get the permission from anybody to bring forward an issue that we feel very strongly about," he said. "The reality is, we started talking to the House over the summer about LIP, and actually in January in a conversation I told the speaker, 'I don't want you to be surprised if this comes up.' "

Gardiner said that in a call with Crisafulli about 11 a.m., he offered to send two senators to the House to begin negotiations on how to end the session and what to do about a special session. Crisafulli indicated that would be "OK," Gardiner said.

At some point after that, Crisafulli decided to have the House adjourn. He called Gardiner and did not get the Senate president, instead leaving a voice mail shortly before bringing the final gavel down on the House session.

Ties have long been frayed. Even before the House adjourned, former Senate President Don Gaetz (R-Niceville), compared the current ties between the two chambers unfavorably to his relationship with former Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel).

Gaetz, who remains in the Senate, also hinted at longstanding Capitol speculation that House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran (R-Land O' Lakes) set to take over the chamber after the 2016 elections, is the real power in the House.

"I feel for Senator Gardiner, for our president, because I don't think he has the certainty as to who he's dealing with in the House of Representatives," Gaetz said. "I always knew that Will Weatherford was the speaker. I didn't always get my way, he didn't always get his way, but we always kept our word with each other. And I wish there were that kind of relationship right now between the president and the speaker."

Meanwhile, Scott filed his long-awaited challenge to the federal government's tactics on LIP. In a statement released with the lawsuit, the governor reiterated opposition to Medicaid expansion and said the current negotiations back up that stance.

"If the Obama administration can arbitrarily and capriciously end one healthcare program in Florida, likely leaving our state taxpayers to foot the bill, it would be irresponsible to further obligate state taxpayers by going deeper into Obamacare with an expansion of Medicaid," he said.

Gardiner declined to comment in depth on Scott's lawsuit.

"To me, (if) you're trying to get a Low Income Pool resolved, I'm not sure that's a productive move," he said.

© 2015 The News Service of Florida. All rights reserved. Posting or forwarding this material without permission is prohibited.

Photo credit: "Florida State Capitol and Florida House Office" by Michael Rivera is used under CC BY-SA 3.0.