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Politics

Backroom Briefing: Lovelorn Lawmakers and Medicaid Messaging

April 29, 2015 - 6:00pm

Like jilted lovers left standing at the altar, Florida senators repeatedly castigated their House partners for abandoning them -- and their issues -- during floor debate Wednesday.

The remarks likely did little to repair the fractured relationship between leaders of the two chambers. And the extended diatribe left unchallenged the veracity of the senators' allegations since, due to its premature exit from the Capitol, the House could not easily rebut them.

Introducing amended bills that the Senate refused to accept from across the rotunda, Republican Sens. Greg Evers, Rene Garcia and Don Gaetz piled on when pointing out how the nefarious House had ruined plans for reforms dealing with prisons, mental health and disabled Floridians.

The rhetoric invariably pivoted on the accusation that, if the House had remained in session, the disagreements could have been resolved before Friday's scheduled close of business.

"Let me tell you something, members. If the House would still be here, I'll tell you we could get something done. But they're not. And this issue is way too important to take a take-it-or-leave it approach," Garcia, R-Hialeah, said about a mental health services package (SB 7068). "In my experience in this process, when we just do it half-a---d and then we say we're going to come back next year and fix it, it never happens."

Gaetz, a former Senate president whose debating skills are unparalleled, delivered a lengthy invective focused on one of Senate President Andy Gardiner's top priorities, a measure that would have expanded educational and vocational opportunities for people with disabilities. The disabilities measure (SB 602) was one of a suite of proposals that died and held a personal stake for Gardiner, R-Orlando, whose son Andrew was born with Down syndrome.

Gaetz described the measures as "a moral imperative" for Gardiner and bemoaned changes tacked onto the bill by the House before Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, shut down the chamber on Tuesday. Gaetz said assistance for people with disabilities transcended partisan politics.

"No matter what you are, this is an issue lifting up people who have unique abilities and giving them a chance to be full citizens," Gaetz, R-Niceville, said.

The proposal would have expanded the Personal Learning Scholarship Account program, which provides assistance for special-needs students. But Gaetz blasted a provision added by the House that would have required a third-party organization, Step up for Students, to receive a $300 administrative fee for handling each of the $10,000 grants.

"It's millions of dollars, literally taken from the scholarships of children, to be paid to an outside organization. The House insisted on that," Gaetz said. "Children have to come second and the money handlers have to come first."

But what Gaetz failed to mention was that the same organization -- Step up for Students -- receives a fee of up to 3 percent to administer the state's tax-credit scholarship program, which helps send low-income students to private schools.

"We applied the same administrative fee policy that the Legislature established years ago for scholarships that go to low-income, primarily minority children. The new fee for the Personal Learning Scholarship was in the Senate bill all along. I just cannot understand how the Senate can now say on the one hand, an administrative fee is fine for poor children but horrible for disabled children. The fact is the fee helps make sure they get their services and can comply with the law. It is paid for by the state and does not come out of a family's pocket," House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, said in an email Thursday.

Former Senate President Tom Lee swatted home the Senate's tirade when he chided House members for falling victim to the "incubator for hubris" more commonly known as the Legislature.

"We have reached a new low," Lee, R-Brandon, said. "Can't we check our own hubris at the door? Have we so lost our way? Are we so full of ourselves?"

MESSAGING ON MEDICAID

As the two chambers do battle, the Senate Majority Office is arming its GOP members with talking points backed up by a poll. The talking points are designed to offset criticism of the Senate's plan to spend $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion money from the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, to provide health insurance to low-income and uninsured Floridians.

The messaging gives senators a way to distance themselves from "Obamacare," which, as in other polls, scored poorly among Florida Republicans in the recent survey.

But again echoing other polls, the Senate poll found that voters support the elements included in the Senate's health care plan if the dreaded words "Obamacare" are omitted.

"We strongly oppose Obamacare or straight Medicaid expansion!" one of the talking points included in the office's packet provided to Senate Republicans emphasized.

The Senate's plan would "increase access to health care without raising taxes and will make it more likely that the uninsured will see a primary doctor and not go to the emergency room," another one reads.

And the proposal would "save Florida $1.2 billion and is supported by small businesses because it is market-based, will lower costs and will force recipients to meet work or education requirements," the GOP's message stresses.

"We want to make sure that the Republican members of the Senate are able to dispel the mischaracterizations that are out there about the Senate plan," Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. "It's important that the public understand the components of the plan and the unique approach that Florida has taken as part of the existing state-federal partnership of Medicaid that's been around for many years."

TWEET OF THE WEEK: "I like the Florida Senate. Think I'll stay. #sayfie" -- Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, (@ClemensFL) on his decision not to run for Congress.

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