Florida Politics

Legislature can’t agree how to spend $83 billion, so session goes to overtime

The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee.
The Florida Capitol in Tallahassee. Tampa Bay Times

Florida’s legislative session will head into overtime after two top Republicans — privately negotiating billions of dollars’ worth of spending and substantive policy — failed to meet a deadline to get an $83 billion budget done Tuesday night, so that the session could have ended on time on Friday.

As time expired Tuesday, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, and House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, both said the 60-day session would have to be prolonged, but they didn’t yet know for how long.

“We will definitely not complete the budget work prior to the end of Friday,” Negron told reporters Tuesday evening — a few hours after House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, downplayed the increasingly expected delay by saying an on-time budget was still “90 percent likely.”

But earlier in the day, Trujillo was already guaranteeing that lawmakers would remain in Tallahassee for longer than they had planned.

“We’ll extend at least a day, but I think one day max,” Trujillo told the Herald/Times. That would push the session into Saturday, but Trujillo then said lawmakers would “maybe lay [the budget] on the table and come back Monday,” which would require at least an additional three days.

Amid the budget gridlock, lawmakers gave final approval Tuesday to each side’s top priority: the Senate’s $800 million water storage reservoir to reduce pollution south of Lake Okeechobee, and the House’s proposal to expand the homestead property-tax exemption to $75,000, subject to voter approval in 2018.

But that wasn’t enough to overcome unresolved differences in spending for healthcare, environmental programs and higher education.

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The biggest sticking point in negotiations: Cuts to hospital funding.

A broad budget agreement reached last week by the House and Senate included $650 million in cuts to Medicaid. But they still haven’t agreed on how to put those cuts — or a potential $1.5 billion from a federally approved Low Income Pool — into effect.

“The healthcare budget is the biggest one left — some issues tied to that,” Corcoran said. “LIP, hospital cuts, all of those things.”

Because healthcare makes up one-third of the state’s budget, disagreement there can cause the entire spending plan to grind to a halt — as it did in 2015, when the Legislature was forced to reconvene in a June special session to pass a budget. That year, the House adjourned and left Tallahassee three days early.

This now marks the second time in three years that lawmakers have been unable to complete their one constitutional obligation — to pass a balanced budget — in the regular 60-day session.

Senate Democratic Leader Oscar Braynon, of Miami Gardens, said that Democrats were ready to stay in Tallahassee as long as they have to.

“All my members have been prepared for summer, for special session. That’s not a threat to us,” Braynon said. “If it’s a terrible bill, terrible budget, we’re willing to stay.”

Corcoran and Negron have not met face-to-face in public since they took charge of the budget impasse Sunday afternoon — at which point Corcoran described their private talks as “volatile.”

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With no viable budget compromise on the horizon, lawmakers on both sides of the Capitol were already preparing Tuesday morning to stick around past Friday. House Democrats spoke about “talk of being here this weekend,” while Senate Democrats said a three-day extension was being discussed.

Thonotosassa Republican Sen. Tom Lee, a former Senate president and budget chairman, told reporters that from his experience, lawmakers were too behind schedule to finish on time and that he would support extending the session.

“I was musing on the floor that I wish somebody would let us know, because I know I’m going to need some new underwear come Saturday,” Lee joked. “And I don’t know whether I need a one-pack, a three-pack or what. We’ve got to get prepared for some overtime.”

For the session to have ended on time, Negron and Corcoran would have needed to agree on a final budget — and allowed time for staff to finalize the written bill and publish it online — before the end of Tuesday, so lawmakers could have had the constitutionally required, 72-hour “cooling-off” period before voting on the budget on Friday.

The Legislature can now extend the session by a three-fifths vote in both chambers — a move lawmakers can exercise only once.

If there’s still no agreement after that, the extreme scenario would be for Gov. Rick Scott to issue a proclamation convening a special session, which would mandate that lawmakers return to Tallahassee and agree on a budget before June 30, the end of the budget year.

“It’s better to get it right than to get it fast,” Lee said Tuesday, echoing comments that Negron has made. “I think we’re better off extending session than trying to come back up. It takes so much longer, under our rules, to get things in the procedural posture to hear them, so you can’t have a special session that lasts less than 10 days.”

“It’s much easier — if we have a landing spot, if we can see the finish line — to just stay an extra day or two and get it done, or come back on Monday for a vote,” he said.

Lee added that some lawmakers will potentially have no place to stay, though, if session is prolonged. Several members live in hotel rooms during session, and Florida State University has its graduation ceremonies this weekend, so rooms are hard to come by.