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Budget details emerge after top lawmakers meet informally in Tallahassee

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After an acrimonious and abrupt ending to this year’s session, Florida legislative leaders are beginning to finally piece together a framework for a new state budget and avoid a possible state government shutdown.

Some of that framework was discussed in an all-day meeting Wednesday between state Sen. Tom Lee and state Rep. Richard Corcoran.

Gov. Rick Scott for more than a week has pushed the idea of a “base” continuation budget but Senate Appropriations Chairman Lee told Florida Politics on Wednesday night that he thinks the Legislature will produce a budget via the traditional conference process.

Lee stressed he had not seen any of the governor’s documents or base budget proposals. Lee said he believes the idea would be for the 2015-16 spending plan to have funding increases for caseloads that come out for education and Medicaid. He said there would be no tax cuts or any of the other “bells and whistles that go into the budget.” There would be no backfill for the Low Income Pool, either.

That would leave $2.5 billion in reserves if needed, depending on what financial news the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services gives Florida in terms of LIP funding. “There would be plenty of money,” to deal with the healthcare deficit, if any, after Florida receives its decision from the federal government.

Lee said the Legislature is leaning toward the traditional budget where the chambers agree to allocations and a “public and transparent” conference be held.

“It might include some level of tax cuts, might include some level of backfilling held in an escrow account pending a number from CMS,” Lee said, adding, “that’s more of what we’re working on in the Legislature.”

The 2015 legislative session came to an end without the one must pass bill: the General Appropriations Act, or the budget. Lawmakers couldn’t come to an agreement on healthcare access and the federal government would not provide Florida with any insight on whether it would approve the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool program beyond June 30. LIP is made possible by a waiver that requires federal approval. Florida has submitted a waiver amendment and is waiting to hear back from CMS as to how much it can expect to get.

Gov. Scott sued the government in federal court over LIP negotiations.

Lee said negotiations between the state and federal government over Low Income Pool funding were continuing but said the lawsuit the governor has filed has “complicated discussions somewhat because they are filtering a lot of their comments now through review by the Justice Department.”

In the meantime, Lee said a great deal of time has been spent individually and with staff going through budget and healthcare policy. Lee said the House has raised some “legitimate” and “reasonable” concerns with the Senate’s proposed Medicaid expansion plan, which would initially put new enrollees in Medicaid HMOs and transition them to a private insurance program. The plan also includes a work requirement for enrollees.

He added that part of the budget discussion on Wednesday centered on a “definition” of what constitutes Medicaid expansion. In the past, House leaders have expressed concerns about relying heavily on federal money for healthcare coverage, as well as extending coverage to adults without children.

Meanwhile,  Scott on Tuesday sent HHS Secretary Sylvia Burwell a letter asking whether the federal government would approve a Medicaid block grant. The block grant concept–specifically the 1332 Innovation Waiver, which would not require congressional approval– has been part of the healthcare conversation for “a good long while.”

Lee said there have been discussions regarding the “innovation waivers” under the federal healthcare law and whether Florida should begin working on a healthcare program that could be approved under an innovation waiver when available in 2017.

“We’re glad the conversation is about expanding coverage,” Lee said when asked about Scott’s letter to Burwell. “We think that’s the appropriate conversation to have.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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