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Tom Lee on Tallahassee budget impasse: ‘We don’t know how this is going to play out’

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As state lawmakers prepare to complete unfinished business in Tallahassee in a special session slated to begin in 12 days, one of the most important members of the 120-member Florida Legislature said on Wednesday that he’s not exactly sure what to expect when the House and Senate return next month to the Capitol to hammer out a budget agreement.

“We really don’t know how this is going to play out,” said Brandon area state Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman.

Lee was one of eight members of the Hillsborough County legislative delegation who gathered at Maestro’s restaurant inside the Straz Performing Arts Center on Wednesday. They were invited to speak before the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce in what was supposed to be a review of the legislative session that was aborted with three full days to go last month, when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli decided to pack it in early.

“All I can say is, ‘what’s your plan?’ Lee asked, regarding those on the House side who have found themselves in a bitter feud with the Senate on the loss of over a billion dollars in Low Income Pool funding. The Obama administration has instead countered by advocating that the Legislature expand Medicaid as a way to deal with the state’s healthcare problems, but that idea has been firmly and repeatedly rejected by both the state House of Representatives and Gov. Rick Scott. “You can’t just keep on saying no. Republicans control every office in Tallahassee,” Lee said, “and no is not an answer.”

Crisafulli’s decision to have the House leave early has been denounced up and down the state by various newspaper editorial boards, Democrats and even some Republicans. But Tampa Republican state Rep. Dana Young defended the early departure date. “Sometimes when you’re in a situation with a profound disagreement, it’s better to step back and let cooler heads prevail,” she maintained.

Sen. Lee said that with the LIP funding definitely not coming to Florida after June 30, Tampa General Hospital is staring at a $90 million annual cut. After meeting with his counterpart in the House on appropriations last week, Trinity Republican Richard Corcoran, Lee maintained that he was “very confident” that there is now a “reality check” in the Legislature about the fact that those monies aren’t coming from Washington after next month.

“Our uninsured health care is a problem,” added Pasco County state Sen.John Legg. “We need to find a way to solve it.”

Tampa Democratic House member Janet Cruz strongly rejected the contention made by Scott and some other Republicans that the federal government can’t be trusted for their end of the deal on Medicaid expansion. Beginning next year, the federal government has guaranteed to pick up 90 percent of the costs for such expansion in each state. Cruz says it’s a “myth” that the feds will bail out of that agreement.

North Tampa Republican state Rep. Shawn Harrison strongly defended his GOP colleagues on the issue, insisting that “every single person” in the Legislature has the goal of providing quality affordable health care for those in need.

He repeated the message that he offered in a letter to the Tampa Tribune over the weekend that he could be that rare House Republican in Tallahassee who is open to some sort of “middle ground” on Medicaid expansion. “I’m a big believer that when the federal government has money to give to states, even if you disagree with how that fund of money was created, that we may be doing a disservice to some of our constituents if we don’t try to figure out a way take advantage of that.”

“Is there some way that we can take advantage of this funding from the federal government, without obligating Florida taxpayers in the future, if it doesn’t work?” Harrison asked, before seeming to hedge his statement. “There’s lot of evidence and empirical data, that Medicaid clinical outcomes aren’t what they should be.”

There was some levity expressed at the lunchtime event. Legg said it was appropriate that the meeting was held at the Straz Performing Arts Center, saying it was similar to watching the Legislature in Tallahassee. “If there wasn’t drama, nobody would come and watch,” he said as the audience of several hundred people laughed. “There were some comedy this year, and several tragedies.”

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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