Court order brings acrimonious legislative session to close

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A last-ditch effort to force the Florida Legislature back to work floundered on Friday after the state’s highest court ruled that there would be no “beneficial result” to force the state House to reconvene.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously against the lawsuit filed by state Senate Democrats that asked the court to order the House to return to the Capitol. The House had abruptly adjourned Tuesday amid a hardening stalemate with the Senate over a new state budget and whether to expand Medicaid coverage to 800,000 Floridians.

The ruling ended an unusual week in state history – and brought to close a 60-day session that resulted in a small amount of bills passing and no new spending plan for the state. State government will be forced to shut down if legislators cannot pass a new budget by June 30.

But while justices threw out the lawsuit – they still questioned the legality of the House decision to adjourn three and a half days before the scheduled end of the session. The constitution reads that neither chamber can adjourn for more than 72 hours without an agreement between the House and Senate.

House attorneys asserted that provision does not apply to the motion that ends the session, but five out of seven justices disagreed.

“In my view, the House’s unilateral adjournment clearly violated the constitution,” wrote Justice Barbara Pariente in an opinion supported by four other justices.

Both sides in the legal dispute were able to claim some margin of victory with the decision, but questions persist on how easily lawmakers will be able to return to work and cobble together a budget plan.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli in a statement called the decision to adjourn “one of the most difficult choices that I have made as a legislator.” But he said the move was needed in order to give legislators a break before resuming negotiations.

“The level of acrimony and unprecedented demand that we pass a policy bill before providing budget allocations are what ultimately led me to finish our policy work and go home,” Crisafulli said. “I believed taking a few weeks off was the best way to get us in a position to pass a budget.”

The divide between the two chambers is largely because a program that now provides more than $1 billion in federal aid to hospitals is to set to expire this summer although the state has asked for approval of an alternative program. Hospitals are predicting severe cutbacks if the money is lost.

The feds want Florida to expand Medicaid insurance as part of the agreement to extend the hospital funds, which is part of the health care overhaul that President Barack Obama signed into law in 2010. But Florida Gov. Rick Scott and House Republicans are adamantly opposed to expanding Medicaid.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, who had also argued the House move was unconstitutional, has suggested holding a special session in June to draw up a budget but state senators are still backing Medicaid expansion.

“Cooperation and collaboration between the chambers should not require a court order,” Gardiner said in a statement. “My colleagues and I look forward to returning to Tallahassee in short order to complete the work we were elected to do.”