Speaker Will Weatherford might have given the best description of the House budget this week when he called it a “dress rehearsal.”
Lawmakers suited up and jousted back and forth about the $74 billion spending plan, with everybody knowing that the show would end Friday in a vote to pass it. But the main event will come during the next three weeks when House and Senate negotiators get together and work out their differences on a final budget.
The “dress rehearsal” description, however, also applies to other issues that are moving through the House and Senate — but have more-uncertain finales. And taking center stage Thursday was a debate about whether lawmakers and Gov. Rick Scott will agree on a plan to extend health coverage to more low-income Floridians.
Weatherford and Rep. Richard Corcoran released a plan, dubbed “Florida Health Choices Plus,” that would provide $2,000 health-care subsidies to low-income parents and some people with disabilities. The plan would reject tens of billions of dollars in federal Medicaid money that otherwise would be available to the state during the next decade through the Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare.
But it is a stark contrast to earlier proposals offered by Scott and Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron with the key difference centered on whether to accept money from Washington.
Scott has backed a federally funded expansion of Medicaid, at least for three years, to offer coverage to hundreds of thousands of uninsured people. He also has lent support to a Negron alternative that would use federal money to help that same group of people buy private health insurance.
The House plan would rely only on state money, projected to total about $237 million a year. It would provide subsidies to a fraction of the people who would be eligible for a Medicaid expansion or the Negron proposal and would not ensure they receive as much coverage.
But Weatherford has long argued that the state can’t rely on federal promises about funding the Medicaid expansion, a prospect that he and others say could leave Florida taxpayers on the hook in the future. He described the House plan as “sustainable.”
Weatherford also conjured the memory of former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush by describing the House plan as a “BHAG.” Back in the Bush days, that acronym was a point of pride because it stood for “Big Hairy Audacious Goals.”
A hairy goal or not, Scott quickly issued a statement Thursday blasting the House plan because it would not tap the federal funds.
“The House’s plan will cost Florida taxpayers on top of what they are already taxed under the president’s new health-care law,” Scott said. “This would be a double-hit to state taxpayers.”
House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, also scoffed at the notion that the House plan was needed because it was more sustainable than relying on federal funding.
“This thing about being sustainable — that’s just a joke,” Thurston said.
A round-up via the News Service of Florida.
NO BUDGET TRAGEDY THIS YEAR: After several years of looking for ways to cut spending, this spring’s legislative session has been notable for its relative lack of budget drama.
Sure, the House and Senate still will have to work out myriad details of a spending plan for the 2013-14 fiscal year. But the Senate unanimously passed its version of the budget Wednesday, and the House approved its plan Friday by a 99-17 margin.
A brightening economy has funneled more money to the state, which makes everybody in the Capitol a little happier. Don’t worry about cutting education funding — the question is how much will lawmakers provide to boost teacher pay.
“When I look at the two budgets side by side, these are issues that can easily be resolved with good faith discussion between the House and the Senate,” said Negron, the Senate appropriations chairman.
Two of the biggest debates that emerged this week in the House and Senate involved pay increases for state workers. In the House, that involved a Republican decision to give $1,000 salary increases and possible $400 performance-based bonuses — instead of $1,400 across-the-board hikes.
That decision, which came in an amendment, angered many Democratic House members, along with Republican Rep. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey.
“What this amendment does is take away a commitment, a promise we made early on that we were going to help our state workers,” Fasano said.
Other Republicans, however, focused on the positive: After six years without raises, state workers will wind up with fatter paychecks.
In the Senate, meanwhile, the debate focused on corrections officers, who were left out of a list of law-enforcement employees who would get tiered pay increases. Some senators urged leaders to come up with $30 million for the issue.
“Let’s find the money,” said Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness.
Negron and others said they would work on the issue during budget negotiations with the House.
PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (OR ADAMS STREET): One intriguing subplot during the final weeks of the session will be Weatherford’s attempt to overhaul the state’s campaign-finance laws.
The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday ditched a proposed increase in the $500 limit on individual contributions to political candidates. The House, meanwhile, has backed increasing the limit to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for local and legislative candidates.
Weatherford has made a priority of the issue, calling for the higher limits while banning a type of fund-raising vehicle known as “committees of continuous existence.” But Scott has signaled that he opposes the increases, which also have drawn skepticism from Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala.
“If the governor has the final word on it, and if he’s not going to sign a bill that changes that, then why pursue it any longer?” Latvala said. “Let’s get down to the other issues that we can resolve.”
Whatever the result of negotiations on the issue, campaign-finance reports filed this week showed that the $500 limit hasn’t been too much of a hindrance for lawmakers planning to run again in 2014 and 2016. Incumbents raked in contributions during the weeks leading up to the legislative session, with a few topping $100,000 each.
STORY OF THE WEEK: House Republican leaders proposed an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. The House plan would reject billions of dollars from Washington and provide $2,000 subsidies to targeted groups of low-income parents and people with disabilities.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “This is a joyous time. We’re able to give our valued employees a raise.” — Rep. Dennis Baxley.