Florida lawmakers swiftly reached agreement Saturday on a major unfinished piece of business, pledging $396 million in state taxpayer money to shore up hospitals for the cost of treating the poor.
The Legislature’s plan would draw $604 million in federal matching money to offset most of the $1.2 billion loss of federal low income pool funds in the fiscal year that begins July 1. It also would put $1 billion into raising reimbursement rates for hospitals.
The help for hospitals dominated the first day of budget talks in an upbeat Capitol, in contrast to the bickering of April that sent the regular session into a tailspin and forced the current three-week special session.
Amid the newfound camaraderie, many hometown projects appeared for the first time. The House late Saturday asked for $10 million more for unspecified space infrastructure facilities in the home county of Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island.
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Still unresolved is a formula to parcel out the money to safety net hospitals, including Jackson Memorial in Miami, Broward General in Fort Lauderdale, Shands in Gainesville and Jacksonville, Tampa General and All Children’s in St. Petersburg, which provide most charity care. Any distribution plan requires approval by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).
By using state money to offset the drop in federal low income pool money, legislators rejected an alternative proposed by Gov. Rick Scott. That would have relied on local property tax revenues to draw down federal money in six counties with hospital taxing districts, including Miami-Dade and Broward.
“We are using general revenue in our model, which is there to make sure we are keeping our system solvent and making sure we are being responsible for our hospitals as well,’’ said Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples. “This is one that our presiding officers agreed upon and I think we’ll get there.”
Under Scott’s plan, hospitals would collectively lose $214 million next year as the state would rely on local hospitals, counties and cities to voluntarily use $900 million of tax money to draw down $1.2 billion in federal funds through financing arrangements known as intergovernmental transfers.
With billions of dollars in spending at stake, the Capitol was packed with dozens of casually-dressed lobbyists for hospitals, colleges, universities, school districts, cities, counties and vendors holding contracts with the state.
On education, the Senate proposed a boost in public school spending by $80 million more to $19.7 billion with a projected increase of 15,000 new students next fall.
That equates to a spending increase of $207 per pupil, to $7,097 per student. That’s an increase of 3 percent next year, but education will be forced to take a back seat to hospitals and health care in the new budget.
“I wish we could do more,” said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Even if the House agrees, that would still fall short of the record boost in school spending that Scott promised voters as a candidate for re-election last year. Scott has the power to veto the entire budget, sections of it or individual line items.
No tangible progress emerged Saturday on how to implement Amendment 1, in which voters last fall directed about $757 million in existing taxes for land and water protections.
Among decisions made Saturday:
▪ House leaders rejected spending $84 million to purchase new police radios under an existing contract with Florida-based Harris Corp. because it would interfere with an open bid process scheduled to begin next year. The state is replacing all its law enforcement radio equipment under a 19-year plan that could cost as much as $1 billion.
▪ Backing the Senate, the House agreed to spend $1 million for expanding the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
▪ The Senate agreed to spend $500,000 for a Tampa Bay regional law enforcement shooting range at Pasco-Hernando College, a priority of local sheriffs and police chiefs in the home county of the House budget chairman, Rep. Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. That’s far shy of the $1.9 million originally sought by Rep. Danny Burgess, R-San Antonio.
Several new initiatives appeared for the first time in the economic development budget, a magnet for hometown projects that’s under the direction of Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
They included $1.5 million for a bike trail connecting Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park in Miami-Dade, $200,000 for the Miami Contemporary Dance Company and $1 million for the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The city of Brooksville received $3 million last year for a welcome center the county has decided not to build, Latvala said, so senators want to let the county spend the money on building a local airport.
Lawmakers signaled support for spending $2 million in tax dollars, four times what the Senate proposed, on the Florida Horse Park, an equestrian center in Ocala. Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the park can double as a hurricane shelter and can host other events.
“I don’t care if they have Jehovah’s Witnesses conventions,” Baxley said. “Anything that brings people in.”