Florida lawmakers convened in Tallahassee in March to kick off the 2015 legislative session facing big decisions regarding the state budget and health care funding – decisions that the two chambers were already at odds about at that time. However, few could predict the unusual end to the session. On Tuesday, April 28th – a full three days before the session was scheduled to wrap up, and in the middle of what is typically the busiest week of session, Florida House members adjourned early and traveled back to their districts. The weeks leading up to the final days of session had become very contentious between House and Senate leaders, with the two chambers at a standoff over state budget and health care issues. At the center of the conflict is a $5 billion difference in the House and Senate budgets regarding health care funding, the potential loss of federal funding for uninsured and underinsured Floridians, and expansion of the state’s sizable Medicaid program, all over strong ideological differences between the two chambers.
Throughout this year’s session, members remained at odds over the potential loss of federal funding for the state Low Income Pool (LIP) program, used to compensate hospitals for treating uninsured and underinsured patients, and whether or not the state should accept the drawdown of federal dollars to expand Florida’s Medicaid program. With the federal Affordable Care Act calling for states to expand coverage of low-income patients, the Senate has been willing to accept the federal funding and passed a plan early in session to create a health insurance exchange for low-income Floridians. However, the House has remained steadfast in its commitment to avoid expanding Medicaid and relying on temporary federal funding to do so. Late in the session Governor Scott reversed his stance on the issue and supported the House position. In addition, the Governor has filed a lawsuit against the federal government for “coercing” states into expanding Medicaid by withholding other funds. At this time, Texas and Kansas have joined Florida in the suit.
After House members adjourned, the Senate was eventually forced to follow suit, with no chamber to trade bills with for final-week passage. The budget standoff and resulting early session exit meant many legislative proposals died without being heard. As health care and budget discussions dominated the session, the House and Senate passed only 232 bills out of more than 1,700 filed. This was the lowest number of bills approved by both chambers in 15 years.
At the start of the session, a number of key policy priorities were highlighted to be debated and discussed throughout the 60-day legislative window, including education accountability, gaming, medical marijuana, and tax relief for Floridians, among other issues. Of these items, the only one that passed was an education testing measure sent to Governor Scott early in the session. The other priorities died without final hearing, and most contained vast differences between the House and Senate plans. In addition, key legislative packages relating to transportation policy, transportation network companies like Uber, economic development, and people with unique abilities – a priority highlighted by Senate President Andy Gardiner – failed due to the early adjournment of the 2015 session.
This week, House and Senate members agreed to reconvene in Tallahassee to hold a special legislative session, tentatively set for June 1-20, to craft and pass a state budget. The hope among legislative leaders is that the questions regarding the LIP program and federal funding will be addressed prior to the start date.
Governor Rick Scott, who opposes expansion of Medicaid in Florida, has requested that the federal government extend funding for the LIP program and provide the $2.2 billion in LIP funding to the state for Fiscal Year 2015-16. The Governor’s office recently submitted the request to federal officials and Governor Scott was in Washington, DC this week to meet with the federal government in attempt to get resolution on this issue.
House and Senate leaders have set the tentative special session start date hoping that the federal issues will be resolved prior to June 1st. At this time the scope of the special session will be to address appropriations items and budget-related issues only, although some are pushing for consideration of policy items that died due to the early regular session adjournment.
Budget and Health Care Funding Issues
At this time, the budget and the outcome of special session hinge upon whether or not the federal government will agree to continue supplemental funding for the state LIP program, as Governor Scott has requested.
Prior to the end of the regular session, the House and Senate had offered their respective budget proposals, which were $5 billion apart. The Senate plan included the $2.2 billion in federal LIP funding, assuming Florida would be able to secure the dollars, as well as $2.8 billion in federal Medicaid expansion dollars to cover a private-sector insurance exchange program for low-income Floridians, known as the Florida Health Insurance Exchange. However, the House plan included none of these federal dollars, with the House contending that the federal government should release the LIP dollars without the funding being tied to Medicaid expansion. In the final weeks of session, House leaders sent a preliminary budget offer to the Senate that included $200 million in state dollars to back the LIP program. However, the House plan did not include any Medicaid expansion. The response from President Gardiner was that the Senate remained committed to both LIP and Medicaid funding, and the two chambers remained at odds.
On the general budget front, members will still have to work out funding for a number of other key state programs, including K-12 and higher education funding, environmental projects, transportation and infrastructure, and other local projects, among others.
One item highlighted as a priority by both Governor Scott as well as legislative leadership at the start of session was a tax cut package for Florida taxpayers. While the House Finance and Tax Committee introduced and passed a comprehensive package, the measure was not cleared through the Senate and tax cuts in Florida remain uncertain until the budget is worked out in special session.
Last week Governor Scott issued an Executive Order creating the Commission on Healthcare and Hospital Funding in Florida. The purpose of the Commission is to examine taxpayer dollars flowing through the state’s health care industry and programs. The Commission will also be tasked with examining the salaries and benefits of hospital executives and attorneys. At this time, appointees for the Commission have not yet been announced.
As a result of the federal government discontinuing LIP funding, state Senate lawmakers attempted this session to put forth a plan to satisfy the federal requirement for Medicaid expansion. The Senate’s private-sector alternative plan would have created a state-run health insurance exchange and a revised LIP funding model. While the measure was heavily supported through Senate committees, there was no support or companion legislation in the House and the issue died prior to the end of session.
In addition to the Senate’s health insurance exchange proposal, a number of other major health care packages failed this session, including a plan to overhaul the state’s mental health and substance abuse services. By the time the measure was heard on the Senate floor, the House had already adjourned.
One issue that did make it successfully through the legislative session was a measure to allow terminally ill patients in Florida to have access to experimental drugs. Known as the “Right to Try Act,” the bill will now be sent to Governor Scott for signature.
This session Florida lawmakers committed to finalizing a plan for implementing the state’s new Low-THC Cannabis law, passed during the 2014 legislative session, which allows for the use of a hybrid, non euphoria-inducing form of cannabis known as “Charlotte’s Web” to treat patients with seizures and severe forms of epilepsy. This year’s measure was crafted by Senate Regulated Industries Chair Rob Bradley (R-Orange Park) who aimed to simplify the process to get the medication to patients more quickly. However, the proposal was heavily amended by the Senate throughout session, with the House never filing a companion measure, and the proposal died without any hearing in the House. However, supporters of medical marijuana in Florida remain committed to legalizing use in the state and have indicated plans to pass a ballot initiative in 2016. A constitutional amendment to allow for medical marijuana in Florida was narrowly defeated during the 2014 election.
The topic of potentially expanding gaming in Florida has been debated by lawmakers for the past several years. Measures to expand gaming in the state, particularly in South Florida, have been strongly backed by Vegas-style casinos but have ultimately failed to pass through the legislative process.
Representative Dana Young (R-Tampa) originally filed sweeping legislation, known as the “Gaming Control Act of 2015,” which initially included two destination resort casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, as well as the addition of slot machines at dog tracks in Palm Beach and Lee Counties. However, the bill was stripped of those provisions after a gaming workshop, and the legislation was watered down to include only decoupling of greyhound tracks and poker. The bill ultimately died without passage.
Representative Young’s measure did not, however, address the compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The compact, which is set to expire June 30th, nets the state around $300 million per year in general revenue. Senator Bradley filed legislation during session to extend the gaming compact for one year to buy more time for negotiations with the Seminole Tribe. However, Senator Bradley’s bill also failed to make it through the legislative process.
At this time, the Seminole Tribe is asking the state to resume negotiations on renewing a five-year deal to give the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games.
Energy, Environment and Water
While this session was predicted to define Florida’s “Year of Water,” the contention between the House and Senate resulted in lack of passage of a number of comprehensive environment, land and water bills.
During the 2014 general election in November, Florida voters overwhelmingly supported Amendment One, which requires that during the next 20 years, a minimum of 33 percent of the revenues derived from documentary stamps on real estate transactions be used to buy and manage Florida land for conservation efforts. State lawmakers were tasked this session with determining the best way to implement the new law and distribute the funding. Prior to the start of session, legislative leaders announced that the focus would be shifted from buying additional state lands and instead toward conservation lands already owned by the state for projects like parks and trails. However, while there were a number of bills filed in both chambers to restructure the state’s trust funds to implement Amendment One, none of the bills were passed. These failed proposals also included language relating to Florida’s springs and other water programs.
This session members also considered legislation to require the state to develop rules regarding permitting for high-pressure well-stimulation, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” The measure was heavily debated in both chambers throughout the session but like many other proposals, the bills died without final passage due to the early adjournment of session.
Another measure that failed to pass dealt with natural gas, and would have added large cargo ships and trains to the natural gas rebate program. However, both bills failed due to lack of final hearing the last week of session.
One of the biggest issues on the education front this session was the debate over standardized testing in the state’s K-12 schools. Many have long argued that students in Florida schools are forced to take too many exams. Earlier in session members passed a comprehensive education accountability bill, which was signed into law by Governor Scott on April 14th. While lawmakers were working on the legislation, Florida students began a new test this year, which was plagued with a number of problems, leading lawmakers to call for the creation of a panel to review the new testing system. Due to the testing issues, the bill passed by lawmakers temporarily suspends the school grading system until the problems are investigated and resolved. In addition, the bill limits the amount of time for standardized test administration to no more than five percent of total school hours per student.
There were a number of other sweeping education measures filed regarding district funding, school choice, class size penalties, charter schools and other issues, but the measures failed to pass. In addition, legislation regarding students and individuals with disabilities, a priority of Senate President Gardiner, passed through the Senate but was not supported by the House and ultimately died.
On the higher education front, members did pass a bill extending an out-of-state tuition waiver for members of the military to their families. There were a number of other proposals, including a comprehensive bill regarding tuition, state colleges and funding models, that failed to receive final hearing during the session.
Another measure that failed this session would have allowed for carrying concealed weapons on college campuses. While the proposal was not successful this year, supporters have expressed a commitment to bringing the issue back next session.
Transportation and Economic Development
Each session the House and Senate transportation committees put forth their respective legislative packages, which include priorities outlined by the Florida Department of Transportation for the year. While the House passed their transportation package with several weeks of session left, the Senate package did not receive final committee hearing and no bill was passed. Members did, however, pass a Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles package, which contains a number of provisions pertaining to Florida’s roadways, that will now be sent to Governor Scott for signature.
Also on the transportation front, when the session ended early, it meant lawmakers failed to take action on important legislation to override local rules for transportation network companies like Uber.
There were a number of economic development provisions considered in legislative packages in both chambers this session, but neither was passed by lawmakers and failed the final week of session. The bills addressed a number of state incentive programs and aimed to streamline and improve the state’s economic development policies. While members also discussed saving the state’s Enterprise Zone program, which will sunset at the end of this year, the date was not extended or repealed by either chamber.
In addition, a $690 million House tax-cut package, which included cuts on cable and cell-phone bills as well as a back-to-school-annual sales tax holiday, failed to pass this year. At this point any tax cuts, a priority of Governor Scott and legislative leaders, will have to be addressed during budget discussions in special session.
Members also considered legislation relating to incentives for the film and entertainment industry, as well as legislation restructuring the state’s approach to entertainment. This legislation, however, also ended up being a casualty of the House’s early session exit.
This session members passed a key measure relating to craft brewers in Florida. The bill, which legalizes 64-ounce growlers among a number of other provisions, has been sent to Governor Scott for approval. The sweeping legislation was heavily discussed and debated throughout the session and now allows beer brewers to sell their own beer at up to eight of their own breweries, as well as gives brewers the ability to distribute the beer they brew at one location to another one of their locations.
Members are currently tentatively set to reconvene in Tallahassee for the special session on Monday, June 1st. There is much at stake during the special session, including the state budget and funding for a number of key programs, as well as health care for many low-income Floridians. At this time, lawmakers and state officials are watching the federal government closely for a response to Governor Scott’s request for an extension of the LIP funding. How members address the state budget going forward will depend on whether or not federal officials agree to grant the Governor’s request.
While the majority of bills filed this session failed to pass through the legislative process, of the 232 that did pass, several have already been signed into law by Governor Scott. This week the Senate finalized all of its bills and sent them in one package to the Governor’s desk. The House is still working to finalize its legislation to send.
Once Governor Scott receives a bill, he has 15 days to act on it and can choose to sign it into law, veto it, or let it become law without any action.