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'Instantaneous Death' Leaves Lobbyists in Limbo

April 28, 2015 - 6:00pm

"Instantaneous death" is how one veteran lobbyist described the impact of the House's abrupt adjournment Tuesday, three days before lawmakers were supposed to go home.

Rumors about the possibility of an early departure by the House had been circulating for more than a week, but lobbyists clustered on the fourth floor of the Capitol were caught off-guard when House Speaker Steve Crisafulli gaveled down his chamber shortly after lunch.

"I don't think I've seen anything like it in my career. I always thought you can never keep a secret in Tallahassee. I have to give the speaker credit. He did a great job keeping a secret," said longtime lobbyist Billy Rubin, one of a few dozen spectators in what would normally be a sardine-style packed crowd gathered around a big-screen television outside the Senate chamber early Tuesday afternoon.

Standing nearby, lobbyist Ron Book agreed that nearly all veteran Capitol movers-and-shakers were taken aback by Crisafulli's actions, which came at a time when, during normal legislative sessions, House and Senate members --- and lobbyists --- would be cutting last-minute deals.

"I think everybody out here was surprised. A lot of stuff died. Instantaneous death," he said.

But, given the intensifying acrimony between House and Senate Republican leaders during the past few weeks over a $4 billion budget impasse rooted in a philosophical rupture over health care for poor and uninsured Floridians, the House's premature departure wasn't completely unpredictable.

"Every day has gotten further apart as opposed to closer together. So if you really reflect on it, it's not shocking," Rubin said. "Everybody who had bills, present company included, knew that this risk existed this week. This has been a whole session unlike any other. It really has."

For some lobbyists, the interrupted session was a blessing.

"There are things that you wanted to happen and things you didn't want to happen. So a lot of things that I didn't want to happen aren't going to happen. That's a good thing," lobbyist Travis Blanton said.

But for others, the news was an unwelcome setback.

"This is hard because we have to start all over," said Diana Hadi Padgett, who's worked for 37 years as a lobbyist or aide. "For the first time in 17 years, I had everything in both sides identical. I didn't have to wait to go to conference. That may not happen again. Now I'm back to square one."

Lawmakers will have to return in a special session to fulfill their sole constitutional duty --- passing the state's $75 billion to $80 billion budget --- before the fiscal year ends June 30.

But that debate over the spending plan could leave the door open for consideration of a variety of seemingly unrelated issues because the budget encompasses every aspect of running state government.

"I think there's very few things that are dead. If it's something that applies to tax law, the budget or one of the major food groups, like education or health care, it's very much alive," lobbyist Brian Ballard predicted.

But Book strongly disagreed.

"Anybody that's got any level of intelligence out here understands very clearly that if it ain't a budget issue, it's dead. Period. End of day," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano indicated that a special session encompassing more than the budget, a difficult enough task on its own, would be problematic.

"If they're going home three days early now, why should we anticipate that they want to come back and pick up where we left off? It just doesn't make sense," Galvano, R-Bradenton, said. "Obviously they're going to want to narrow the issues. But you're going to have to deal with the budget eventually. You can't run from it."

For some, the significance of the breakdown between legislative leaders overshadowed whether bills lived or died.

"I have a couple important bills that won't make it now this year. However, I think we've got bigger problems. It's clear from the words that were spoken from the speaker of the House that the leadership is beyond disagreements. They're in a battle for who's right and who's wrong," lobbyist Sean Pittman said.

The split between Republican leaders pivots on the Senate's plan to spend $2.8 billion in federal money to provide health coverage to low-income and uninsured Floridians as an outgrowth of the Affordable Care Act, more commonly known as Obamacare. The Senate has linked the coverage expansion to extending the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool, or LIP, program, which funnels money to hospitals and health care providers that serve large numbers of poor or uninsured patients. The House and Gov. Rick Scott strongly oppose the Medicaid-funded coverage expansion, and Scott is suing President Obama's administration, which last year extended LIP until June 30, over linking the two health programs together.

Crisafulli's decision to go home early likely won't help legislative leaders resolve their differences, according to people remaining Tuesday afternoon in the Capitol.

"When you're in a disagreement with people, there are certain actions that bring you together and there are certain actions that draw a deeper line in the sand. I think clearly now a deeper line has been drawn in the sand," Pittman said.

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