Florida Senate president proposes special session in June to end historic budget stalemate

Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, bangs the Senate gavel to begin an afternoon session.
Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, bangs the Senate gavel to begin an afternoon session. Miami

Gov. Rick Scott and a bitterly divided Legislature darted in four different directions Thursday as Scott called for budget talks, senators suggested a special session in June, the House did not favor either idea and Democrats sued the House.

As Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, proposed a three-week session starting June 1 to craft a state budget, Senate Democrats marched to the Florida Supreme Court with an emergency petition that asks justices to rule on whether the House violated the state Constitution by adjourning Tuesday afternoon. Senators say it’s unconstitutional for one chamber to shut down for more than 72 hours without the other’s consent.

“The same men who make the laws should be compelled to obey them,” said Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa. She said she was acting without Gardiner’s permission.

The high court ordered the House to formally respond by 10 a.m. Friday.

In a message sent to members late Thursday, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli stood his ground.

“We strongly disagree with the arguments that were filed by 13 Democrat members of the Senate and believe that the House’s actions complied with the Constitution and the historic practices of both Chambers,” he wrote.

“Accordingly, I have no plans to ask you to return to Tallahassee at this time. I look forward to filing our response tomorrow and will provide you with an electronic copy.”

A key House Republican, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land-O’Lakes, said he had “serious doubts” the court would intervene.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said on Twitter that the Senate Democrats’ action had no legal basis: “Individual senators have no standing and cannot act on behalf of the Senate in litigation,” Gaetz said.

The Legislature finds itself in a crisis unique in its history, trapped by an ideological divide over whether to expand healthcare with federal tax money. The breakdown is compounded by term limits and a lack of trust between the two chambers.

The 2015 regular session crashed to a halt Tuesday when Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, abruptly adjourned and sent members home, blaming the Senate for demanding a federally funded expansion of healthcare that he said the House won’t support. It was the first time in recorded history in Florida that one house shut down on a different day than the other.

After many days of silence and threats to kill senators’ bills, Scott issued a statement Thursday that called on the Legislature to immediately resume work on the state budget in time for the July 1 start of a new fiscal year. Legislators answered with a collective yawn, as neither chamber responded.

Scott’s statement raised side issues such as his support for a statewide commission to study hospital profits and his view that Florida should abolish a certificate of need process that requires state approvals before hospitals can add new beds. Scott used the word “Obamacare” six times in his eight-paragraph statement and he sided with the House, which insists that any talk of healthcare expansion be held separately from the budget; the Senate says they are connected.

“We should begin preparing a budget in the interim that could be taken up in a special session,” Scott said, “without any [low-income pool hospital] funding and without any expansion of Obamacare.”

In contrast to Scott’s statement, Gardiner floated the idea of a special session from June 1-20 to pass a budget and to consider the Senate’s Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange to help offset the phasing out of the low income pool (LIP) that reimburses hospitals for charity care to uninsured patients. The House opposes the exchange.

“There’s nothing worse than for the governor to call us back and the chambers come in and there’s still no agreement on the big picture of the budget,” Gardiner said Thursday on the public affairs program Florida Face to Face on the Florida Channel. “What would not be productive is a rush to judgment and say we’re coming back immediately because it doesn’t resolve anything.”

In his letter to Crisafulli, Gardiner wrote: “Given the stark differences between the House and Senate approaches to health care funding and coverage, we believe clear guidance from the federal government is crucial regarding funding for services to the uninsured which hospitals across our state are legally required to provide regardless of compensation.”

Senators have repeatedly asked Scott not to call for a special session until legislative leaders can develop a consensus.

Scott did not speak to legislative leaders. He was out of town Thursday, holding what his office called “political events” in South Florida that were not listed on his official schedule.

Florida Democrats were on the political trail as well, using the legislative stalemate as a tool to raise money on the eve of a federal fund-raising deadline.

Party chairwoman Allison Tant emailed potential donors Thursday to tell them in boldface type that the House’s decision to go home Tuesday “could lead to a state government shutdown!”

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.comor (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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