House should allow vote on Medicaid expansion

IN BETTER TIMES: Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, left, and Senate President Andy Gardiner were all smiles when the Legislature convened in March, but the session ended in a dispute over Medicaid..
IN BETTER TIMES: Florida House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, left, and Senate President Andy Gardiner were all smiles when the Legislature convened in March, but the session ended in a dispute over Medicaid.. AP

How will the Florida Legislature divvy up $80 billion?

Each year the Legislature meets for 60 days to sort through all types of issues, but the only bill they are required to pass is an annual spending plan referred to as the appropriations bill — more commonly called the state budget. This year the Republican-led House and Senate failed to pass that one bill before session ended.

The two chambers could not reach a consensus on whether or not to accept federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage to an additional 840,000 of Florida’s working poor. The full Senate wanted to, the House leadership did not.

Why did this hold up the entire budget? The Senate plan included the healthcare expansion along with the federal dollars and totaled $80 billion. The House budget did not and totaled less than $77 billion. Without agreement on the total spending amount, the budget process could not be completed.

Senate President Andy Gardiner suggested the two legislative chambers should extend the session to work out a compromise. Instead, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli decided to adjourn three days early without a budget.

Strategically, it was a good move for Crisafulli if his goal was to avoid insuring these 840,000 individuals. Don’t get me wrong, the right thing to do for Florida’s working poor, for our hospitals and businesses and for all Florida taxpayers would have been to negotiate, compromise and finish the budget, including some form of healthcare expansion.

[On Thursday, the federal government sent a letter to state health officials leaving open the possibility of giving money to Florida to help hospitals that care for the poor, but there is no guarantee. Stay tuned.]

So here we are awaiting the start of the special session. Senate President Gardiner promises a budget will be passed.

Enter Gov. Rick Scott.

Instead of sitting down with the two leaders, Scott has formed a commission of non-experts to examine hospital funding; has instructed his agency heads to create budgets based on a doomsday scenario of a government shutdown; has proposed using a “continuation budget,” which does not exist in Florida; and has insisted that this fictional budget would have an $8 billion surplus.

Wow! My head is exploding. Let’s break this down. And let’s start using the correct terminology:

In Florida we are required to have a “balanced budget” which means we must not spend more than we take in which would result in deficit spending. In the same vein, any surplus funds must be appropriated to account for every projected dollar.

We don’t have a “continuation budget” a creature of the federal government where deficit spending is common as are partisan impasses.

The Office of Economic and Demographic Research (EDR) is an arm of the Legislature whose role is to forecast economic trends and revenues. In other words, the EDR updates the Legislature on revenue projections so it can make informed policy decisions and craft a balanced budget.

During its revenue-estimating conference, the EDR projected 2015 revenues would exceed last year’s revenues, creating a surplus of $1.8 billion. Scott’s claim of an $8 billion surplus has many of us scratching our heads. He has yet to explain his fuzzy math.

None of this means that the state can’t borrow money. It can, and does. We issue debt for transportation projects, school construction, and other infrastructure. The budget includes funding to pay for the debt service on the bonds. Issuing debt is not the same as deficit spending.

As for Scott’s new commission, while the goal is laudable, the timing is questionable and the composition is laughable. Members should be experts on hospital funding and charity care, not political pawns and donors.

Last, Scott’s doomsday scenario of a government shutdown while the two sides are talking and making progress is a rather bizarre tactic for a governor from the same party as the leadership of both chambers.

If state funding is genuinely the concern, the Legislature could sunset the healthcare expansion in 2017, when the federal share decreases from 100 to 95 percent, and re-examine the costs at that time.

The House should allow a floor vote on a modified Senate healthcare plan with the promise that no member would be punished for his or her vote. That would enable voters to hold representatives accountable. I bet that would also lead to a balanced budget.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.