Florida lawmakers stumbled into the wee morning hours Saturday before finally settling on a $69.7 billion state budget to end a legislative session marked by bitter feuds.
Florida lawmakers pass Medicaid overhaul
As the midnight deadline approached, an apparent budget deal collapsed and forced legislators into overtime when Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon took the unusual step of extending the session to work out their differences. Those differences resulted in a bitter ending for Republicans, who for the first time in state history came into the session with a veto-proof majority.
"Politics got in the way today, and frankly I never saw it coming," Haridopolos said.
The Senate finally approved the negotiated plan at 3:35 a.m. The budget bill, which covers the fiscal year starting July 1, now goes to new Republican Gov. Rick Scott. The only thing the Legislature is legally obligated to do during the annual 60-day legislative session is to pass a balanced budget.
Legislators approved a major overhaul of Medicaid on Friday and appeared on the way to a smooth finish before things unraveled shortly before midnight. Some critics claimed the Republican-led Legislature lost valuable time focusing on volatile social issues such as abortion and gun issues late in the session, when more attention should have been given to meeting the governor's goal of creating jobs.
A historic Medicaid measure (HB 7109) just beat the clock, getting final approval a couple of hours before adjournment. The bill makes major changes to the Medicaid program, putting the care of nearly 3 million beneficiaries into the hands of private companies and hospital networks. Supporters said the overhaul is necessary to rein in the more than $20 billion-a-year program. It expands a five-county pilot program that was criticized for allowing providers to earn big profits by scrimping on patient care.
Earlier Friday, Haridopolos (R-Merritt Island) defended the amount of time spent on debating abortion issues for a second straight year.
"To a lot of people in this state, pro-life issues are very important," Haridopolos said during a mid-afternoon visit with reporters. "This is part of the social fabric. A lot of people run on social issues so we did give those folks some time."
Consumer groups were largely outraged with a session where Republicans held veto-proof majorities in both chambers.
"The majority party, emboldened by a two-thirds majority, aggressively went after the courts, voters, labor groups, trial lawyers and anyone else they deemed a threat to their power," said Brad Ashwell, spokesman for Florida PIRG, a consumer group. "Middle class Floridians will see higher insurance rates, higher phone rates, more sprawl, and more obstacles to having a voice in their elections."
The Legislature started the session by passing a bill that would base teacher pay on merit while also stripping tenure for new hires. The session ended with several bills making it more difficult for women to obtain abortions.
"The conclusion of the legislative session is just the start of the litigation season," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "This Tea Party takeover of Tallahassee has produced the most dramatic big government roll-backs of personal freedom and civil liberties in recent years--maybe in Florida history."
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