House Speaker Steve Crisafulli's decision to send his members home three days before the scheduled end of the 2015 legislative session was borne of frustration over the Senate's response to his preliminary effort to settle a health-care budget standoff, according to one of the speaker's top lieutenants.
Crisafulli was further angered by the Senate's handling of seemingly noncontroversial bills in the days leading up to the House calling it quits early Tuesday afternoon, House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.
Crisafulli sent a preliminary budget offer to the Senate last Thursday that included $200 million from the general-revenue fund to address the federally-backed Low Income Pool, or LIP, program, set to expire on June 30. The program, a combination of local and federal dollars, steers money to hospitals and health care providers that serve large numbers of uninsured and poor patients.
The House's offer didn't address a Senate proposal to use Medicaid expansion money -- part of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare -- to provide private insurance to low-income Floridians. Crisafulli and other House GOP leaders, including the chamber's budget chief and next speaker, Richard Corcoran, vigorously oppose a Medicaid-funded expansion.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, responded to Crisafulli's initial submission by reiterating the Senate's position that the LIP and Medicaid expansion issues be linked together.
"The nail started to go into the coffin when the House moved what I would consider dramatically toward the Senate position in dollars for a Low Income Pool-type spending and the response from the Senate was a letter that said basically, 'No. Medicaid expansion or nothing.' And then radio silence," Workman, R-Melbourne, said.
At that time, Workman said he and Crisafulli started discussing, "What if? What policies are still out there?" but "at that point made no decision by any stretch of the imagination" to prematurely end the session.
This week, however, the tide turned when the Senate started amending bills and sending them back to the House, Workman said, in contrast to previous years when policy-related issues would be dealt with in "conforming" bills associated with the budget.
"Over the course of the next few days, every single bill became hijacked and became a policy debate in lieu of a conforming bill debate. It got very difficult to deal with the policy of the bill. We would send over a bill to the Senate with one issue and it would come back with five, five nongermane issues. That was growing more and more, and the phone calls from senators saying we're going to add all of these goodies onto the bills and we better accept them or it's dead was growing louder and louder," Workman said.
Crisafulli, who had difficulty reaching Gardiner for several days, and Workman had coffee and discussed "what ifs" Tuesday morning, Workman said.
"We looked at the policy we've completed and what's left ahead of us and realized we were at a point where session would normally be over as far as policy and we'd strictly be dealing with budget," he said.
Crisafulli again tried to call Gardiner about 11 a.m. Tuesday, but Gardiner told reporters later that day he was at the podium during a floor session and did not have his cellphone with him when Crisafulli called.
"When Steve reached out to the Senate president again and still got radio silence, he made the decision on his own, somewhere within that hour before he did it, to call it and say we've met our policy obligations to the state. We're not getting to the budget issue. That is obvious. Let's just get these guys home to their families and come back in special session and deal with the budget and get rid of all of these policy turf wars that are typically done in the conforming bills, not in policy discussions," Workman said.
Senate budget chief Tom Lee, a former Senate president, said he called Crisafulli Monday night and left a voice message after meeting with Gardiner and Sen. Don Gaetz, another former Senate president. The three presidents had discussed their concerns about "substantive legislation that was getting linked to the disagreement we had over the budget," Lee told reporters Wednesday afternoon.
"He was at dinner. He texted me back, said he would call me in the morning. I texted him in the morning and said, 'I'm waiting for your phone call,' " Lee, R-Brandon, said.
Gardiner spoke with Crisafulli by phone Tuesday morning "to tell the speaker (Gardiner) wanted to send us down to talk to whoever (Crisafulli) had available to decouple these work-plan issues from the budget," Lee said.
"The next phone call he got back was on his cellphone that afternoon, announcing they were adjourning," Lee said.
On Wednesday, Gardiner sent a letter to Crisafulli saying that the House had violated the state Constitution by leaving the session prematurely, and the Senate threatened to sue over the issue. Gardiner said the Senate would remain in session until 11:59 p.m. Friday. Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, responded by saying that the House was prepared to discuss budget allocations and that he is willing to "work together" during a special session.
But how Republican leaders and their members can overcome the intensifying acrimony remains to be seen.
Lawmakers appear "unable to rise above some of the power and influence we have as individual members to work together and get things done," Lee said.
"That is a process defect that somebody needs to fix. I don't know how to do it. But the culture is toxic now. And I think it is becoming increasingly difficult for us to work collaboratively together, and that troubles me greatly," he said.