Florida House to court: Ending session early is legal

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Florida’s Republican-controlled House on Friday gave a sharply worded response to the state’s high court on whether it had the power to shut down the annual session earlier this week.

Democrats in the state Senate filed a lawsuit that contended the House violated the state Constitution when it adjourned more than three days before the scheduled ending date.

But the House filed legal papers defending its actions, while at the same time questioning whether the Florida Supreme Court even has the right to consider the lawsuit.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli in a statement maintained the House was on “solid constitutional ground,” adding that 13 state senators don’t have a “legal right” to compel the House to be in session.

The House adjourned after leaders said there was no reason to remain in session due to a stalemate with Senate leaders over a new state budget and whether to expand Medicaid coverage to 800,000 Floridians.

Democrats asked the seven justices on the high court to order the House back into session. Their lawsuit maintained the House violated a clause that reads that neither chamber can adjourn for more than 72 hours without an agreement between the House and Senate. Senate Democratic Leader Arthenia Joyner called the House actions “unacceptable” and said she and other Democrats filed the lawsuit to prevent it from happening in the future.

But in their 23-page filing attorneys for the House argue that the constitutional provision cited by the Democrats does not apply to a motion to end the session. They assert that for more than 40 years the Legislature has ended its session without a joint resolution between the House and Senate.

There is no indication if the court will rule before the session ends on Friday.

But the court battle has ratcheted up tensions. State Rep. Matt Gaetz came under fire because late Thursday he criticized the Senate Democrats’ lawsuit on Twitter. Gaetz singled out two Democratic senators for legal errors and misspelled words contained in the filing. Both senators cited by Gaetz are black.

Joyner, who was one of those mentioned by Gaetz, called the comments “offensive” since he only mentioned black state senators. Other legislators, including Republicans, also criticized Gaetz’s tweet. State Rep. Mike Hill, a Pensacola Republican who is black, called the comments “divisive.”

“There is absolutely no place in our party, state or nation for singling out people of color and suggesting they are inferior in their professional achievements,” Hill said in a statement. “These types of antiquated insinuations do not bring people together in a way that represents the progress and greatness of our nation.”

The final day of the session is usually hectic but while state senators were still in town they were not meeting.

Legislators are ending the session without passing a new state budget, meaning they will have to return in order to avoid a possible government shutdown by June 30.

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 to more than 800,000 low-income Floridians as part of the agreement to extend the hospital funds, which is part of the healthcare 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 has asked House leaders to agree to return for a June special session to pass a new budget.