Has Florida’s legislative special session been a success? That depends on whom you ask.
At a minimum, the Legislature needs to pass a budget and prevent an interruption in government services. By agreeing to final budget numbers with the required 72-hour cooling-off period, it appears the Legislature will meet that minimum threshold of success.
That will earn legislators a passing grade — but the devil’s in the details.
Where they failed to make the grade was in meeting the needs of 840,000 of their constituents who currently lack healthcare coverage. The most recent polling shows 68 percent of Floridians support the federally funded Medicaid expansion while only 28 percent do not.
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The Legislature also failed to meet its constitutional responsibility to implement Amendment 1 to the expectation of the voters who supported the initiative with a whopping 75 percent of the vote.
With a current-year budget of $78 billion and an increase of revenues flowing into state coffers, legislators had a projected $1.8 billion extra to spend or return to taxpayers.
It’s all a matter of priorities. And it seems the Legislature is more in tune with the special interests rather than with those it represents.
The regular legislative session ended abruptly when the House adjourned 3 ½ days early — with no advance notice. The fear was that there wouldn’t be a budget in place for the fiscal year beginning July 1.
The most significant sticking point causing the budget stalemate was whether or not the state would accept federal funding to expand healthcare coverage to over 800,000 of Florida’s working poor. The Senate said yes and developed a plan, the House said no and “refused to dance.”
Senate President Andy Gardiner and Speaker of the House Steve Crisafulli agreed to call a 20-day special session to pass the budget and to address some related issues.
In short order the House took up and disposed of the Senate’s healthcare plan, the Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange, or FHIX.
The result of the House’s action was a loss of billions of dollars. It further created the need for a significant infusion of state revenues to draw down federal matching funds for the Low Income Pool (LIP), a program to reimburse hospitals for uncompensated or charity care.
The House and Senate agreed on $400 million. That’s $400 million that is no longer available for other budget priorities like Amendment 1, education, state employee raises, prison reform and tax cuts.
Legislative leaders warned their members that there would not be the necessary resources to fund all their projects, and meet their other obligations. They painted a particularly bleak picture when it came to Amendment 1 funding.
Keep in mind, when Amendment 1 passed, it required one-third of all documentary stamp revenue collected to be used for conservation and preservation of Florida’s land and water. That equates to $750 million for the 2015-16 fiscal year.
That is not a suggested amount — it is mandated through the state Constitution reflecting the will of 4.1 million voters. Fully funding Florida Forever would take $300 million. This should have been the very first budget item funded.
There was some good news — the Legislature was able to increase education funding but not to the record level per student sought.
And it was able to provide $400 million in a variety of tax cuts and sales-tax holidays. The tax cuts are estimated to save each Floridian an average of $20.
With just days to go, the midnight announcement of a $300-million last-minute spending spree took many of us by surprise. Just how did that money magically appear, and when and where did those decisions get made on how to spend it?
Did I mention we didn’t have much money for Amendment 1?
But look at what we did have money for:
▪ $1 million to the beef products industry.
▪ $2 million for a privately owned youth sports training center.
▪ $100,000 for a Rodeo Arena enhancement.
▪ $3 million for an Orlando performing arts center.
▪ Enterprise Florida got a boost of $8.5 million for marketing and $11 million more in incentive funds. These dollars primarily go to private companies and corporations.
So where did Amendment 1 money go?
Some $50 million went to fund “water projects” that legislators requested for their districts — potentially worthy storm water and sewer projects — but not what was envisioned under Amendment 1.
And did the Legislature really believe it was appropriate to use $13.65 million in Amendment 1 funds to further enrich Alico, a large private landowner, with a controversial water-farming contract? It’s amazing what a helicopter ride and some campaign contributions can lead to.
Perhaps it was a successful session for some special interests, but for the working poor, state employees and the majority of voters who were ignored — not so much.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.