Tale of two budgets

Both chambers of the Florida Legislature have proposed different budgets
Both chambers of the Florida Legislature have proposed different budgets ASSOCIATED PRESS

Florida legislators have had a lackluster session, with few substantive bills passed and little political drama. That might change soon.

Legislators annually spend 60 days in Tallahassee crafting laws, but the one thing they must do each year is pass a balanced budget by the end of the session.

That must be done by May 1 this year, and all indications are that it won’t be easy. Plenty of compromising and fighting lies ahead. Here’s why: Last week, both the House and the Senate unveiled their proposed budgets. And the chambers are $4.2 billion apart.

The House’s proposed budget stands at $76.2 billion, which is less than current spending; the Senate’s is $80.4 billion, which would be the largest in state history.

Chipping the plans down to a middle ground will be painful. At the core of the debate is a philosophical difference on how to spend most of the money. And healthcare — specifically, how we pay for the medical needs of millions of low income Floridians — is shaping up to be the battle royal.

The heftiness of the Senate’s budget is mainly because it includes federal dollars to cover the uninsured at Florida hospitals through the Low Income Pool, or LIP. Florida was notified that the LIP would be funded only through June 30. “Coming up with a new LIP model that the federal government approves is, I believe, the most critical question facing the Florida healthcare system,” State Sen. René García, R-Hialeah, head of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, told the Editorial Board.

An alternative to Medicaid expansion, now called the Florida Health Insurance Affordability Exchange or FHIX, is also on the table and also merits approval. Pending federal consent, this would allow Florida to tap federal Medicaid money to allow low-income Floridians to purchase private healthcare coverage. Some of our poorest residents desperately need this break and we think they should get it. In the long run, it will save money for all Floridians, money now spent in emergency room care.

We agree with Mr. García.

But the gauntlet has been thrown down. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, has said the House is not for any expansion, whatever it’s called.

Senators have indicated they are willing to hold up the budget process over the issue. Addressing Florida’s healthcare challenges is a priority of the Senate, and the budget reflects our hesitation to fund other issues without resolving this problem,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, chair of the Miami-Dade delegation. We hope the Senate is successful in its efforts.

Education is another budget sticking point: The House includes more money for school construction and maintenance than the Senate. But neither increases per-student funding to meet the governor's recommendation of $7,176 per student.

As anticipated, environmental spending from voter-approved Amendment 1 — this year estimated to be $757 million — is another bone of contention.

Once each chamber approves its version of the 2015-16 budget, the process known as the “budget conference” will begin. That’s when representatives from each chamber meet to bargain and compromise.

Capitol watchers say this year lawmakers may actually have to call a special session, which is what it may take to fix our healthcare, education and environmental needs. It’s not easy, but we urge legislators to blend their budgets and do what’s best for Florida.