State Politics

Bills aimed at helping people with special needs become casualty of legislative impasse

Senate President Andy Gardiner with son Andrew during Take Your Child to Work Day last week.
Senate President Andy Gardiner with son Andrew during Take Your Child to Work Day last week. Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

The legislative impasse over health care and the budget appears to have gotten personal.

A day after it was reported that House Speaker Steve Crisafulli accused Senate President Andy Gardiner of sandbagging him on Medicaid expansion, the House released its agenda for the week that shows no sign of the priority bills he and Gardiner agreed to relating to people with special needs.

The bills are a top priority of Gardiner, an Orlando Republican whose son has Down Syndrome. The suite of bills attempts to increase post-secondary options for children "with unique abilities," provide new state-sponsored scholarships, and a program to provide increased financial literacy for people with special needs.

They were part of a joint "2015 work plan" agreed to between Crisafulli, a Merritt Island Republican, and Gardiner in a carefully-scripted roll out of their session priorities on Jan. 28.

The measures were heralded as "a bold agenda of public policy initiatives that will influence Florida for generations to come" but the budget impasse and dispute over Medicaid expansion that is sending the Legislature into overtime appears to have claimed large parts of the agreement.

At a closed door meeting with House Republicans last Tuesday, Crisafulli read from a carefully prepared script that called out Gardiner for failing to warn him that Medicaid expansion would be part of his session agenda.

"I worked with President Gardiner all summer to develop a work plan and talk about how we would handle session issues,'' Crisafulli said according to a script obtained by the Associated Press. "Expanding Medicaid was never part of the agenda. In fact, he stated that he knew where the House was, and did not push the issue in the Senate. Obviously, things have changed and rather than getting caught up in the why, or the how, we are where we are today."

By the end of the day Monday, when the House released its last special order calendar of the session, three of the special needs bills that were among the first bills to pass the Senate had still not been scheduled for a hearing. If the bills aren't on that agenda, the House must waive the rules in order for them to come to a vote by the scheduled end of the session at midnight on Friday.

House chief of staff Kathy Mears pointed to a single bill that was sent to the governor last week -- the implementation of the ABLE act which creates the Achieving Better Life Experience (ABLE) program to assist those with special needs in Florida.

"We have passed significant legislation hoping to provide pathways and economic opportunity for individuals with unique abilities," Mears told the Herald/Times.

Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta said the Senate president is "optimistic" that the special needs bills are not being held hostage to the budget and Medicaid talks.

"He's hopeful we will see the full package passed by Friday,'' Betta said, noting that the House will have to waive the rules to take them up. "At this point, he's very concerned we may not be able to bring these bills in for a landing."

Gardiner defended his position on Medicaid expansion when speaking to reporters last week after Crisafulli's meeting with Republicans.

"I have said we wanted to have this dialogue about health care in Florida" and it needs to include the uninsured, he said. He pointed to the fact that the legislature's chief economist, Amy Baker, believes that Medicaid expansion is a program that "sustains itself and that's an important revelation."

House leaders don't appear ready to budge. They note that the Senate has refused to take up other elements of the joint work plan and point to the House tax cut bill, which the House sent to the Senate with the understanding that they would pass the policy and come up with the money later with the budget is resolved.

"Speaker Crisafulli was committed to all of our work plan priorities,'' Mears said.

While the special needs legislation was a priority of Gardiner's, another element of the plan -- relating to water and natural resources legislation -- was a priority of Crisafulli's. The Senate has put Crisafulli's water bill on its special order calendar for Wednesday.

Two other elements of the joint plan -- promoting adoptions and limiting school testing -- have already gone to the governor.

Gardiner has said the Senate wants to extend the session until June 30 to give them time to hear from the federal government about how much money it plans to send the state to cover hospital costs for uncompensated care.

"We're prepared to stay until June 30, the end of the fiscal year, to get this done,'' he said last week.

He said that he and Crisafulli still had a "very good" relationship and were "trying to get the joint agenda done." Crisafulli told him that "it's all conceptual."

Unless the rules are waived, it appears the following bills will not come up for a vote in the House:

▪  SB 7030, a bill to create a "path to economic independence for people with unique abilities by establishing new postsecondary designation for programs serving students with disabilities;

▪  SB 602, a bill to expand the policy guidelines and increase funding for Personal Learning Scholarship Accounts;

▪  SB 7022 which creates "financial literacy programs designed specifically to help people with developmental disabilities participate in the economy independently."

The House has sent a version of its Personal Learning Scholarship bill to the Senate but it required the parents to pay a $300 administrative fee, or 3 percent of the scholarship, to go to the scholarship organizers. The Senate removed that language and sent it back to the House.

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