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Senate president, House speaker exchange letters as budget dispute deepens

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Instead of a Doctor of the Day, when the Florida House and Senate next meet, maybe they should consider a psychologist, counselor or mediator.

After an exchange of insults and letters Wednesday it became even more uncertain when the two chambers will be able to begin budget negotiations.

The gulf between the Florida House and Senate became wider Wednesday after Senate President Andy Gardiner sent House Speaker Steve Crisafulli a letter stating the House adjournment on day 57 of the 60-day legislative session was unconstitutional.

Crisafulli responded by noting, “things that have been said about our work together are untrue,” and placed blame for no action on substantial policy issues at the Senate door.

Gardiner said the deaths of bills dealing with water, the Department of Corrections and students with disabilities were the result of the House’s early adjournment. The early sine die left the Senate with no partner with which to complete the Legislature’s work.

Crisafulli responded by saying the Senate refused “to allocate funds to our schools, our environment, and our justice system, based on a view of healthcare policy that is predicated on borrowing against the future of our children and grandchildren.”

The budget dispute centers on a Senate plan to expand Medicaid to provide health insurance to the working poor. Crisafulli explained his hands are tied on the matter.

“I told you that the House could not pass ObamaCare expansion. It is not something that I can force them to pass,” Crisafulli wrote Gardiner. “This is a matter of the House exercising its constitutional duty to represent those who have elected us.”

It is a response senators will have difficulty accepting. State Sen. Rob Bradley said it is inaccurate to compare the Senate health plan to ObamaCare.

“It is Florida’s response to ObamaCare. The Senate plan is a free- market approach,” Bradley said Wednesday. “The Senate plan says pretty simply: if you have a job or you are going to school, then we’re going to provide for you a way to get affordable health insurance. Nothing more, nothing less; that is not ObamaCare. That’s not even traditional Medicaid expansion. Anyone who seeks to characterize it that way is incorrect. It is just not factual.”

Sitting on state Sen. David Simmons’ desk is Mason’s Manual of Legislative Procedure. Senators defer to Simmons on most parliamentary matters. Simmons notes that the U.S. and Florida Constitutions forbid one chamber to end a session early and go home without the consent of the other. Simmons said it is a constitutional guarantee preventing one chamber from gaining leverage over the other by being absent.

“The 1885 constitution (says) the doors of each House shall remain open so that this can not occur. So that it can assure that the people’s business is done,” said Simmons. “Important issues are not easy issues. Whether it is implementation of Amendment 1, whether it is passing a budget, we have been given a time period in which to accomplish that job. And we are not supposed to go home before that time period is done without the consent of the other house.”

The exchange of letters followed the Senate rejection of House amendments to the Senate’s Students with Disabilities Act. The measure was a priority of Gardiner and part of a joint work plan with Crisafulli.

State Sen. Don Gaetz has championed many of the elements in the proposal, but he spoke against the bill, saying he could not accept an amendment the House had attached. The change diverted money away from students and to an organization handling scholarships for low-income and special needs students.

The amendment killed the bill and incensed state Sen. Tom Lee.

“I can’t help but see this as a new low in our process,” said Lee, a former Senate president. “We can’t check our own hubris at the door, have a little humility and respect a piece of legislation that is so personal to a presiding officer?”

While senators express disappointment — and some anger — over the House’s maneuvering this week, Crisafulli maintains the foundation of the dispute is the Senate’s plan to draw down Medicaid money to replace dollars lost when the federal government ends a LIP program that reimburses hospitals for care provided to the uninsured.

Crisafulli wrote Gardiner to say the Center for Medicaid Services insists LIP funding is not related to Medicaid; now that CMS has clarified the issue, then maybe the House and Senate could start working on a state budget.

“We have always said that LIP is not predicated on Florida passing a Medicaid Expansion bill. Today, CMS has cleared up that matter and I hope that you will now be in a better position to work together to untie the issues and have separate discussions,” Crisafulli wrote Gardiner. “We stand willing and able to do so in a Special Session.”

Gardiner said the Senate would remain in session until 11:59 p.m. Friday, the scheduled end of the spring legislative session. When the House will return to the Capitol is unknown. Lawmakers have until June 30 to produce a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

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