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Politics

Weekly Roundup: Whose Special Session Is It Anyway?

May 14, 2015 - 6:00pm

There was a time, as recently as the meltdown of the regular legislative session, when Gov. Rick Scott was accused of taking a hands-off approach to running the state.

House and Senate lawmakers were in a standoff about expanding health-care coverage. Scott, meanwhile, was flying to California to promote Florida and making appearances to tout the opening of a Wawa convenience store in Fort Myers and the Orlando Eye, a giant Ferris wheel.

Now, some people in the Capitol might be looking back at those times fondly.

SCOTT WINS THE HEADLINES

Legislative budget chiefs quietly sat down this week to start working out the details of an upcoming special session and, more important, to determine if detente is possible in the state's cold war over health-care funding.

But it is Scott who has been trying to set the tone for the special session. And he's been doing so in a manner that warms the hearts of headline writers.

After earlier calling for hospitals to share profits like Major League Baseball teams, Scott, a well-heeled former hospital executive, kicked off this week by cobbling together a commission --- made up mostly by people with limited medical experience --- to examine the economics of health care and hospitals in Florida.

Scott would later give hospitals and health insurers less than a week to provide a wide range of data, including information about local tax revenues and average costs per patient per day, to help the commission in its research.

Scott also went to Washington, D.C., where he got U.S. Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., to agree to have the House Energy and Commerce Committee look into the governor's allegations that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is trying to illegally coerce Florida into accepting Medicaid expansion.

"They want us to take on more of Obamacare," Scott said in a release. "They want us to adopt their policy the way they want us to --- or else. This is the Sopranos."

Scott also stopped by FOX News while in Washington, where he said that a massive tax-cut package and his push for a "historic" increase in education funding could be in jeopardy due to the Legislature's health care-fueled budget impasse.

"We'll just do what we've done this last year," Scott said during an interview with Greta Van Susteren. "We won't put more money into schools, which I wanted to do. We won't cut taxes, which I wanted to do. We'll just leave the money there and deal with it in our next session, which starts in January."

Once back in the Sunshine State, Scott raised the possibility that state government could shut down July 1 because of the impasse. He also called on state agency leaders to outline essential services that would need to be funded through what he calls a "continuation budget" if lawmakers fail to craft a fiscal plan, and he took an apparent pre-emptive shot at the Senate for the budget problems.

"While we have asked the federal government for guidance on what health-care access proposals they would approve at no cost to Florida taxpayers, it is possible that Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and the Florida Senate will not agree to any budget without the specific expansion of Medicaid (at a cost to state taxpayers of $5 billion over 10 years)," Scott wrote in his letter to agency heads.

Scott has sided with the House in opposing a Senate plan that would use federal Medicaid money to offer private health insurance to hundreds of thousands of low-income residents. The Senate plan stems, at least in part, from the scheduled June 30 expiration of the $2.2 billion Low Income Pool program, which sends money to hospitals and other medical providers that care for large numbers of low-income patients.

Earlier this month, the governor filed a lawsuit against the Obama administration to attempt to block federal officials from factoring whether the state has expanded Medicaid into their decision about extending the so-called LIP program. Federal officials say that they don't want LIP to pay for the medical expenses of Floridians who could otherwise be covered by Medicaid.

But there has been a lot of head-scratching in Tallahassee as to Scott's ultimate endgame.

"Florida's Constitution assigns the role of developing a state budget to the Legislature," Katie Betta, a spokesman for Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, wrote in an email.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau that Scott's approach is "unfortunate."

"Raising the specter of a government shutdown is not necessary at this point, and it's meant to put political pressure on the Senate. ... It's hard for the governor to be a broker for a solution when he takes one side like this," Latvala told the Times/Herald.

WATER OFFICIALS DOUSE CHARLIE'S SWEET DEAL

For months, legislative leaders have voiced opposition to moving forward with a deal worked out by former Gov. Charlie Crist to buy U.S. Sugar Corp. land in the Everglades.

Still, the door never appeared completely closed to environmentalists and South Florida residents, who continued to press to use money from the voter-approved constitutional initiative known as Amendment 1 to buy the land --- with an estimated cost of $500 million --- south of Lake Okeechobee before an October deadline.

That was until Thursday.

The South Florida Water Management District governing board unanimously voted to terminate an option for the U.S. Sugar land that was part of Crist's $1 billion Everglades restoration proposal.

Board member James Moran, a Wellington attorney appointed by Scott, called the deal "a boondoggle from the day it was signed."

"The initial purchase that was exercised in 2010 was for almost $200 million --- most of which we took from our reserves here --- and we ended up with land which we couldn't even use for the purpose for which it was purchased," Moran said.

Everglades Foundation Chief Executive Officer Eric Eikenberg said efforts will continue to restore the Everglades, to find land to serve as reservoirs and flow ways and to move more water south from the lake. But he added that the district's action would have better served the state back in January.

"I think we would have had more time to come up with an alternative plan," Eikenberg said. "Now what happens is this puts more of a spotlight on the upcoming special session and what steps we're going to take with this important project."

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "We're clearly not going to see anything in regards to reforming the program in the special session. But I'm hopeful that, while we continue to work on updating and reforming the program, that we won't allow it to die on the vine in the first place." --- Gus Corbella, chairman of the Florida Film and Entertainment Advisory Council, holding out hope that lawmakers will improve incentives for film and television production in the state.

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