The House and Senate committees charged with crafting budget plans have finished their first drafts. Differences between the two chambers on some of the major policy issues are starting to emerge.
And Capitol insiders are beginning to speculate that a special session could be in the cards.
In others words, all the usual signs that the midpoint of the session is at hand are on display in Tallahassee. And as usual, there are almost as many questions as answers.
Will the budget include money to defray the medical costs of low-income Floridians, either through a form of Medicaid expansion or something else? Just how far will lawmakers really go in reining in the testing and accountability system that has been the hallmark of the state's education reform efforts for 15 years? And is this the year that advocates of a gambling deal hit the jackpot, or will they once again go bust?
The past week helped set up some of the battles. The next month will be about resolving them. Unless, of course, the chattering classes finally have it right and lawmakers will need a few extra weeks to hammer out their differences.
WHAT'S A FEW BILLION AMONG FRIENDS?
There's always a gap of some sort between the House and Senate budgets. Usually, one of the chambers floats the idea of removing a program from the state ledger, or adding something to the spending plan, or cutting this tax or that expense.
This year, though, the difference is a bit larger than usual. With the Senate Appropriations Committee passing $80.4 billion for the budget year that begins July 1 and the House Appropriations Committee checking in with a $76.2 billion outline, the gap between the two is more than $4 billion.
That means legislative leaders will likely have to reach some sort of agreement before negotiations about the budget details can begin. And the biggest source of friction comes in health care.
The Senate would include $2.8 billion for a plan to use Medicaid expansion money from the federal Affordable Health Care Act, better known as Obamacare, to help lower-income Floridians purchase private insurance. The upper chamber also would use nearly $2.2 billion from a potential extension of the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program, which funnels additional money to hospitals and other health providers that serve large numbers of poor and uninsured patients.
That program is set to expire June 30 unless the state can reach an agreement with the federal government.
In the case of expanding health coverage with Medicaid money, the Senate has tried before to get the House to go along with a similar plan, only to get soundly rejected. And the House is also hesitant to put LIP money in the budget, given that the LIP program is scheduled to not exist when the budget takes effect. But something's got to give, Senate leaders say.
"Whether or not the House wants to embrace either of those two proposals remains to be seen, but we're going to have to have some solution," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon.
As reluctant as they are to talk about Medicaid expansion and LIP funding, though, House leaders are eager to discuss taxes. The chamber rolled out a $690 million package of tax relief that slashes levies or offers holidays for a range of items, including cellphone bills, pay TV, gun-club memberships, college textbooks and book fair purchases.
"The average Floridian pays about 1,800 bucks a year in state taxes. That is the lowest in the country, but we can do even better and we will," said House Finance and Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach.
But Lee said tax-cut measures may not advance for a couple of weeks due to the talks with the federal government.
"And we're not going to get into conference (negotiations with the House) unless we get some remedy, in all likelihood anyway, on the health-care funding problems that we have," Lee said.
The sins -- or at least the sinful ideas -- of past legislative sessions are coming back to pester lawmakers in 2015. One of the thorniest issues is gambling. On one hand, the House is vetting a soup-to-nuts gaming measure that might end up going nowhere fast; on the other, the Senate is pursuing negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida focused on the state's existing deal with the tribe.
House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz's comments at the introduction of a four-hour workshop Thursday on gambling might have foreshadowed the future of a sweeping proposal released by House Majority Leader Dana Young the day before the legislative session began earlier this month.
"Welcome to the most anticipated non-event of the year," Diaz, R-Miami, quipped to a packed meeting room.
Young's plan (HB 1233) would allow a maximum of two Las Vegas-style casinos to open in Miami-Dade or Broward counties and would effectively do away with a 20-year revenue-sharing agreement, called a compact, with the tribe. A portion of the deal with the Seminoles giving the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games such as blackjack is set to expire on July 31 unless the Legislature reauthorizes it or signs a new agreement.
Meanwhile, Senate Regulated Industries Rob Bradley told The News Service of Florida that his talks with the Seminoles have intensified over the past week.
"We are negotiating right now with the Seminole Tribe. Those are ongoing negotiations. Whether they will be fruitful or not remains to be seen," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said.
Under the current agreement, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion over five years in exchange for exclusive rights to banked card games at five of its seven facilities throughout the state. The tribe's payments to the state have thus far exceeded the minimum and are expected to increase under a complicated revenue-sharing formula inked in 2010.
Meanwhile, Bradley's committee has also tackled a state law that allows a limited form of medical marijuana. Facing another legal challenge to the state's attempt to craft a framework for the pharmacological pot industry, the committee moved forward with a measure that would jump-start the process.
Bradley, who was instrumental in passing a law last year that legalized non-euphoric cannabis for patients with cancer or chronic muscle spasms, is pushing a new plan that would expand the types of patients who would be eligible for the treatment. The plan also includes specifics about how the Florida Department of Health would choose nurseries that can grow, process and distribute the substance.
The Department of Health has tried twice to craft rules for the industry. But a lawyer representing a 4-year-old girl with inoperable brain cancer filed a legal challenge to the revised proposal two weeks ago, creating more delays in getting the law implemented. A judge has set an April 14 hearing in the case. Also, two other challenges were filed this week.
Last year's law was "a promise to families across Florida that had children suffering from as many as 100 seizures a week that we would give them the relief they were asking for," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said. "A year has passed and unfortunately we have yet to be able to fulfill this promise that we made to those families, even though we wrote a law that said a system would be in place to deliver the substance by Jan. 1. The purpose of this bill is simple. To deliver on the promise we made last year."
TEST OF WILLS:
Lawmakers are also considering, as usual, an array of measures dealing with education. Perhaps the highest-profile legislation related to schools is a plan to roll back the number of standardized tests that public-school students take each year, and the Senate Appropriations Committee took perhaps the biggest step in that direction yet.
Under the newest version of a Senate measure (SB 616), Florida third-graders would not have to pass the Florida Standards Assessment to be promoted to fourth-grade this year until the tests for that grade and others are found to be valid by an independent examination.
In exchange, the proposal would require school districts to identify students who scored in the bottom 20 percent on the test and come up with strategies to help those students.
"You can promote them, if you want to promote them, but you need to demonstrate why you're promoting them," said Senate Education Pre-K-12 Committee Chairman John Legg, a Lutz Republican sponsoring the overall bill.
House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, didn't seem eager to join.
"Social promotions, to us in the House, are not something that we're interested in," he said.
The House, having already passed its version of the testing bill, moved on this week to other education measures. It approved a proposal that could funnel local tax dollars to charter-school construction (HB 7037), a bill (HB 665) relaxing penalties for school districts that don't comply with the state's class-size limits and a measure (HB 7043) that would make it easier for school districts to approve student dress codes and establish financial bonuses for districts that do so.
STORY OF THE WEEK: The House and Senate Appropriations Committees approved the chambers' respective budget proposals for the fiscal year that begins July 1.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "I would say to our friends in the House, who have their own views about this matter -- views that I respect -- that 'no' is not a health-care policy. 'No' is not a solution for 800,000 people." -- Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, on the House's reluctance to take up a Senate plan to help low-income Floridians purchase health insurance.