After convening in Tallahassee for a special legislative session and working nights and weekends to come to terms on funding issues, Florida lawmakers passed a $78.7 billion 2015-16 state budget Friday evening. With the unexpected early end of the regular 2015 session, state House and Senate members were faced with the task of convening back in Tallahassee for the special session to pass a balanced budget for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1st. Wrapping up the longest budget process in recent memory, House members debated the budget Thursday and Senate members debated and passed the plan Friday afternoon. The budget conference process was extensive, with the two chambers differing on a number of key funding issues throughout the three-week special session.
During the regular session, House and Senate members remained at odds over addressing a budget shortfall resulting from a reduction in federal funding for the state Low Income Pool (LIP) program, which is used to compensate hospitals for treating uninsured and underinsured patients. The federal government funded the LIP program at $2.2 billion last year, but announced earlier this year that the program would no longer be funded in its current form. The two chambers were also in a session-long standoff over 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. Differing proposals regarding this issue were reintroduced during special session but the topic continued to plague the process and members could not come to terms on a proposal. On the LIP funding issue, federal officials announced earlier this month that Florida would receive $1 billion in funding – leaving lawmakers to determine how to fill a $1.2 billion shortfall left in the budget.
In May, House and Senate leaders set June 1-20 for the special session. Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli also issued a joint proclamation outlining a limited session agenda to include budget and conforming bills, as well as the implementation of Amendment One, the Water and Land Conservation Constitutional Amendment passed last year, and a number of comprehensive health care proposals. However, the differences between the two chambers over health care issues cast a shadow over all matters during session, and members sparred throughout the three-week window. While some predicted a quick budget debate and passage and early finish to the special session, members were not able to come to agreement until last week.
The budget has already been sent to Governor Scott for action. Even after the adjournment of session, tensions remain between the two chambers over legislative and budget priorities, and the budget conference process. A difficult veto period is expected, as a number of issues were included in the last hours of the budget process and the Governor is likely to use his line-item veto power liberally before he signs a final budget, putting a number of projects at risk. The Governor is expected to sign the budget as early as this week.
The budget conference process was a contentious one, with members remaining at odds over health care funding, as well as other items including education and environmental funding. The budget was finalized in a late night meeting last Monday between House Appropriations Chair Richard Corcoran and Senate Appropriations Chair Tom Lee. Lawmakers ultimately made a key decision on the health care issue to use $400 million of state dollars to help offset hospitals’ losses from the decline in federal LIP funding.
Senate members also faced heavy debate over whether enough funding was being allocated for land purchases as part of the implementation of Amendment One. Some argued up until the end of session that lawmakers had taken too broad of an approach for water and conservation purposes. Ultimately, the budget passed unanimously through the Senate and by a vote of 96-17 in the House.
The plan sent to Governor Scott does not go as far as the Governor wanted on education spending and tax cuts, but seemed to be the only reachable compromise between the two chambers. On the education side, the budget does provide a three percent increase in per-student spending and continues the freeze on tuition increases at state colleges and universities. Members also came to terms on a $427 million tax plan.
The budget also includes a focus on Florida’s individuals with disabilities, with lawmakers dedicating around $230 million in the coming year for a number of programs, including housing, scholarships and school tuition. On the health care end, the budget does not expand health care coverage or Medicaid eligibility in the state, but does include the $400 million for hospital losses.
On the environmental side, members plan to pay more than $50 million to purchase conservation land and dedicate significant funding for Florida Forever, springs restoration and Everglades restoration.
The Governor is expected to sign the budget this week.
Both chambers introduced their respective health care plans this session, and both were at the opposite ends of the spectrum. The Senate plan focused on creating a Florida Health Insurance Exchange Program, known as FHIX 2.0. The proposal would have used federal Medicaid dollars to move around 800,000 uninsured or underinsured Floridians into coverage. The measure was offered as an alternative to Medicaid expansion but was opposed by House members who struck the bill down during the mid-point of special session.
On the House side, members proposed a package of six health care bills. The measures, according to House members, aimed to limit health care costs and regulations, and included a proposal to eliminate certificates of need at hospitals, allowed for the elimination of restrictive regulations for off-site surgery centers and surgery-recovery centers, allowed for nurse practitioners and physician assistants to prescribe controlled substances, and created more health insurance options for state employees. However, after consideration, the measures were not taken up by the Senate. The Senate did, however, call for the creation of a Joint Legislative Task Force on Health Care Policy Innovation, which will allow House and Senate members to work through the interim to consider and examine different health care proposals, debating and hearing public testimony on the options.
Lawmakers were able to come to terms this session on a tax cut package, which has already been signed into law by Governor Scott. The nearly $430 million plan provides 10 days of savings on back-to-school shopping and cuts on cell phone and cable tv bills. The package also includes exemptions on a number of other items, including agricultural uses, boat repairs, gun-club memberships, school fundraisers and aviation fuel in certain circumstances.
For students heading back to school the plan removes sales taxes on college textbooks for one year and provides a 10-day sales-tax holiday in August on clothes and school supplies.
Lawmakers are set to return to the Capitol in just under 90 days to begin committee meetings for the 2016 legislative session. Next year’s session will begin in January, as lawmakers are experimenting to see if the earlier session date could become a more permanent decision. Members are already looking ahead to the health care funding issue, which should prove difficult again next year.