With Florida’s annual legislative session reaching its midpoint last week, state lawmakers are working to finalize a number of key issues, including the state’s budget for Fiscal Year 2015-16. Both the House and Senate have released their respective spending proposals, which are $4 billion apart. However, a key issue remains contentious for both chambers and poses a threat to the resolution of the state budget before the required 60-day adjournment – federal funding for the state Low Income Pool (LIP), and whether the state will accept the draw down of federal Medicaid dollars. The Senate has expressed a willingness to accept the draw down while the House and Governor remain steadfast against it. With the federal government announcing its refusal to continue funding the state’s LIP program – used to compensate hospitals for treating uninsured patients – and negotiations between state and federal officials rumored to be at a standstill, there is much uncertainty surrounding the second half of the 2015 legislative session.
In addition to health care issues, Florida lawmakers are tackling a number of other key matters this session, including increased spending for K-12 schools, a priority highlighted by both Governor Scott and legislative leaders prior to the start of session, and funding the implementation of the recently passed Amendment One, which allocates 33 percent of revenues from certain existing state taxes to land and water conservation. On the legislative side, House and Senate members continue to discuss and debate policy initiatives relating to education accountability, gaming, medical marijuana, and tax relief for Floridians, among other issues. Members have also focused this session on education and employment programs for individuals and families of individuals with unique abilities. This issue is a priority for Senate President Andy Gardiner.
The health care issue has also caused a significant amount of contention between the two chambers. Members remain largely focused on this issue while other funding matters remain uncertain. As a result of this difficult dynamic between the House and Senate, only 14 bills had passed as of last week. State lawmakers on both the executive and legislative side continue working with federal officials on the LIP issue, but at this time there is no resolution in sight, with the recent announcement that the current breakdown between federal and state officials could last for several more weeks. These issues may well result in an extension of the current session or the call of a special legislative session to finalize and pass a state budget once the federal funding issues have been addressed. In recent news about the issue, Governor Rick Scott, who last session called for Medicaid expansion in the state, just this week reversed his decision, citing the uncertainty of the federal funds to cover the costs for the state’s Medicaid recipients.
Budget and Taxes
Despite operating with a surplus in state revenues, the 2015-16 state budget will not be finalized without heavy debate over a number of key issues, particularly health care funding for low-income and uninsured patients in Florida. While original predictions indicated a budget surplus of around $1 billion for the coming fiscal year, the controversial issue of Medicaid expansion has loomed over the Legislature throughout the first half of session. If the federal government discontinues or changes LIP funding as it has committed to do, the hole in the state budget will be around $2.2 billion. The LIP funding is set to expire June 30th. Currently the House and Senate budget proposals differ greatly on health care spending, with the Senate spending around $5 billion more to cover the lack of LIP funding. The House, on the other hand, has included $2.2 billion for LIP and will only do so once the federal government agrees to extend the program. This issue will likely be a source of heated debate through the remainder of session.
Prior to the start of session, Governor Scott announced his $77 billion “Keep Florida Working” budget, including increased funding for Florida’s public schools and nearly $700 million in tax cuts, including a significant reduction in the state Communications Services Tax and a number of state sales tax holidays. Both the House and Senate plans include increased funding for K-12 schools, as well as higher education institutions. Last week members of the House Finance and Tax Committee heard the chamber’s $690 million tax cut package for this year, which includes a number of exemptions for different types of agricultural and farm equipment, as well as the extension of certain tax credits. In addition, proposals to repeal the sunset date for the tax exemption for industrial equipment, passed by members during the 2013 legislative session, are currently moving through both chambers.
While the House and Senate remain far apart in their plans for making up the potential lack of federal LIP funding beginning July 1st, the Senate plan includes a proposal to use a private health insurance system to provide coverage to those currently being served by LIP funding, known as the “Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange,” or FHIX. This would cover about 800,000 Floridians with incomes up to 133 percent of the poverty level. The House, however, remains steadfast in its refusal to do so.
Members are also looking to overhaul the state’s mental health services this session, allowing for the possibility of for-profit companies and Medicaid managed-care organizations to bid on substance abuse and mental-health service contracts at the regional level. These services are currently managed by seven entities statewide.
In addition, lawmakers are considering “Right to Try” legislation this session to allow terminally ill Floridians who have exhausted available drugs and treatments to use experimental medication. The measure in the Senate also allows for a “physician order for life-sustaining treatment” (POLST) provision between doctors and patients.
Members are also debating legislation in the House that would update state law to allow patients recovering from minimally-invasive surgical procedures in Florida’s ambulatory surgery centers (ASC) to stay for up to 23-hours for recovery, and to allow ASCs to provide extended care to patients in their facilities.
The controversial issue of legalizing the medical use of marijuana in Florida was hotly debated last session, with a constitutional amendment narrowly defeated during the general election last November. While the amendment failed, members did pass 2014 legislation to allow use of a hybrid, non euphoria-inducing form of marijuana known as “Charlotte’s Web,” mostly used to treat seizures and severe forms of epilepsy.
Lawmakers are currently addressing the medical marijuana issue again this session. Under the law that passed, only nurseries that have been in business for at least 30 continuous years and cultivate a minimum of 400,000 plants are eligible to apply to be one of five “dispensing organizations.” The measure crafted this year by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, chaired by powerful Orange Park Republican Rob Bradley, would increase the number of dispensing organizations to 20 and expand the types of eligible patients who can purchase the products.
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.
This session, members are currently debating whether or not to extend the state’s current gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which nets the state around $300 million per year in general revenue. The agreement with the Seminole Tribe expires in July. Regulated Industries Chair Rob Bradley recently filed legislation to extend the gaming compact for one year to buy more time for negotiations with the Seminole Tribe. Sen. Bradley’s legislation is a much more scaled-down version of the House’s legislation, filed by House Majority Leader Dana Young (R-Tampa). Rep. Young’s originally sweeping legislation, known as the “Gaming Control Act of 2015,” 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, but the bill was recently stripped of these provisions. Her legislation has now been watered down to include decoupling of greyhound tracks and poker. Rep. Young’s measure does not, however, address the compact with the Seminole Tribe. Her legislation will be heard this week in committee but she has indicated she is not proceeding with the bill further. This probably ends the possibility of destination resort casinos in Florida this session.
Energy, Environment and Water
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 are 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. Amendment One requires more than $740 million be set aside for land and water projects over the next fiscal year. Both chambers have passed their respective plans implementing the new law, but critics want more funding set aside.
Members are also considering legislation requiring the state to develop rules regarding permitting for high-pressure well-stimulation, including hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” as well as a measure to protect springs and other water resources in the state.
One of the biggest issues on the education front this session has been 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, leading Governor Scott to issue an executive order prior to the start of session suspending a standardized test for 11th graders.
School accountability and testing has become one of the most hotly contested and debated issues since session kicked off in early March. Last week the Senate took up and amended a sweeping accountability measure sent over by the House, which would put the following on hold relating to student testing: school grades, teacher evaluation, and fourth grade promotion for students. However, many argue that the measure does not go far enough and push for scrapping the testing requirements altogether. Senator Tom Lee (R-Brandon) filed an amendment to allow students in high-level and advanced placement classes to be exempt from the state tests, but eventually withdrew it.
In addition, the House has passed a bill requiring school districts to share their construction and maintenance funds with charter schools. The charter school bill also eases penalties for schools that fail to comply with the class size amendment, encourages school districts to adopt uniform policies for students and would allow for high-performing charter schools to replicate themselves in high-need areas.
On the higher education front, one of the biggest issues lawmakers will address this session will be dealing with state colleges in Florida. Senator Joe Negron is pushing for an overhaul of the institutions, altering their degree-granting abilities and changing the names of state colleges, among other provisions, but will likely meet resistance in the House.
In addition, members have been considering controversial measures relating to carrying guns in schools. One proposal would give school superintendents the ability to designate individuals to carry a concealed weapon on school property. It has moved through all assigned committees in the House but still needs to be approved through the committee process in the Senate. Another bill in the House would allow people with concealed weapons licenses to carry guns on the campuses of Florida’s colleges and universities. The National Rifle Association is strongly supporting these bills.
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 (FDOT) for the year. Members in both chambers are discussing their proposals for this session, which are unlikely to be passed until the final days or hours of session. The transportation “train,” as it is called, is a perennial favorite for lawmakers to heavily amend throughout session.
One key issue being debated by members this session is the state’s Enterprise Zone program, which will sunset this year. Members in various committees have expressed reluctance to extend the program after reports indicate a lack of Return On Investment.
Members are also working on legislation relating to incentives for the film and entertainment industry, as well as legislation restructuring the state’s approach to entertainment. In addition, members are considering proposals to cap annual economic development incentive awards and implement a “pay-as-you-go” model to distribute money after projects are completed. This move is opposed by Governor Rick Scott.
There is much to be decided and much at stake in the Florida legislature in the coming weeks, with the state budget and the future of the state’s health care programs hanging in the balance. Members will continue in the coming days and weeks to address filed legislation and craft amendments to bills on various issues. State officials and other interested parties will also be eyeing federal officials closely for a ruling on the all-important LIP funding, which could be the deciding factor between session ending on time or members being forced to extend beyond the 60-day limit to pass a state budget.
Currently the session is scheduled to adjourn on Friday, May 1st. However, at this juncture an extended session or special session is looking more and more likely.