Lawmakers struck a series of deals late Wednesday night on health care, higher education and technology as they moved toward a final agreement on a series of budget-related bills with the Friday end of the session looming.
While a few details remain to be worked out, the compromise signed off on by Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, and House Appropriations Chairwoman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, appeared to clear almost all of the hurdles left to finishing a deal on the spending plan in time.
One of the most contentious issues resolved Wednesday was a bill that would require counties to pay back years of disputed Medicaid bills unless they could prove to an administrative judge that the bills were unwarranted. Alexander said that marked an attempt to move toward counties after the upper chamber’s initial insistence that the county pay 85 percent of the bills without an avenue for appeal.
“We offered a discount of 15 percent to try to easily settle it, but if a county feels like there’s more, then they can go through [an administrative hearing] and potentially go through item by item and get more back,” Alexander said.
Counties argue the state should fix its billing system, which they say is plagued with errors, before using the withholding mechanism in the bill to force counties to pay even 85 percent of bills that might or might not be valid.
“This is bureaucracy at its worst, and they just made it law to the tune of $155 million to Florida’s taxpayers,” said Cragin Mosteller, a spokeswoman for the Florida Association of Counties.
The counties would have three years to pay back the money, at a cost of about $77.5 million, according to the state; FAC argues that the measure will cost governments nearly $155.6 million.
Alexander was unmoved by the counties’ case that it would saddle them with soaring bills at a time when all governments are trying to trim budgets squeezed by a lagging economy.
“They should have been paying it all along, and it wouldn’t be a problem today,” he said.
Alexander and Grimsley also agreed to a provision — never discussed before in the budget negotiations — that would allow colleges and universities to increase fees for construction and maintenance by as much as $60 a year.
The changes would increase the level of annual increases allowed at some colleges while maintaining a $2 per year, per credit cap; universities would also be allowed to increase the fees, which would be indexed to tuition, up to the same limit.
“It’s an alternative way to make sure students have the infrastructure that they need to get a great education,” Alexander said.
Also under Wednesday’s deals, the state would drop an email consolidation effort long championed by Alexander. The House strongly opposed continuing the project.
“The savings have not materialized, and the new estimates going forward actually show it costs the state money,” Grimsley said. “I just think it’s time to abandon that program.”
Alexander, who will be forced out of office this year because of term limits, said he was “exceedingly disappointed” in the progress of the project and essentially waved a white flag.
“I give up, and someone who’s going to be here longer than me needs to sort it all out,” he said.