By Aaron Deslatte and Kathleen Haughney, Tallahassee Bureau 11:21 AM EDT, May 7, 2011 TALLAHASSEE
Republican lawmakers forced a business-dominated session into overtime Saturday as they pushed through a vast array of conservative priorities, from repealing growth laws to handing over most of the state’s Medicaid patients to health-maintenance organizations. Proclaiming they were honoring the will of voters by getting government out of their wallets, Republican super-majorities in both the House and Senate used the 60-day session to advance business deregulation, tax-breaks for companies, and privatization of government services — all under the auspices of kick-starting the state’s sluggish economy. But with time ticking down Friday night on the required midnight adjournment, egos and sweeping agendas overcame the session. A leadership fight between the two Republican presiding officers erupted, stalling the completion of the 60-day session until well after 3 a.m. over demands that both chambers pass 44 “conforming” budget bills making a host of regulatory changes. Lawmakers voted to reduce the number of weeks jobless Floridians could claim unemployment benefits to between 12 and 23 weeks, depending on the statewide unemployment rate. The current maximum is 26 weeks. But the session blew up when the Senate opted to defeat a bill de-regulating interior designers and another lowering licensing requirements for mold inspectors. Senate President Mike Haridopolos and his leadership team tried to salvage the heavily lobbied de-regulation bill, but rank-and-file senators shot it down, demanding they “send a message” to the House not to force-feed so much unfamiliar policy to them during the last day. After that, House Speaker Dean Cannon refused to take up two claims bills Haridopolos had lobbied them to pass, for Eric Brody and William Dillon. The chamber also decided to delay passing a $123 million tax-incentive package that includes a three-day back-to-school sales tax holiday. Cannon had called Haridopolos just before midnight to get him to re-consider the defeated conforming bills. Haridopolos told him, “You’ve been in recess for most of the evening, I wish you’d called me a little bit sooner. We’re passing the budget.” ”That sent a very disconcerting signal,” Cannon said. Haridopolos had lost control of his chamber, and told the speaker all they would still consider was the tax-cut bill. ”All I said was ‘Guys, all we have left is tax relief,'” he said. “I hope cooler heads will prevail, and we have a good night’s sleep tonight.” In response, by 2 a.m. the House had responded by stripping little-known pari-mutuel language out of one of the conforming bills that House lawmakers said could have led to an expansion of gaming. The language – inserted in the arcane web of policy and spending directives – was unknown to most of the House. House Tax and Finance Chairman Steve Precourt, R-Orlando, said he didn’t realize it had been inserted into his bill until mid-week. ”We had some members today who had some issues with it, who didn’t realize it was there,” conceded House Appropriations Chairman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring. After the vote, the chamber adjourned sine die, at 2:07 a.m., leaving the Senate to scramble to herd its members back into session to do the same. They returned to session at 3:01 a.m., where sleepy senators bemoaned the tactics. Then, they passed the tax cut package. But a choked-up Haridopolos apologized to his fellow senators and to William Dillon, who was wrongfully incarcerated for 27 years, and the Brody family. Brody, 31, was 18 when a Broward sheriff’s deputy slammed into his car, putting him in a coma for nine months and leaving him with a severe brain injury and unable to walk or speak coherently. A jury said that Brody should receive $30.7 million to pay for lifetime care and compensate him for pain and suffering. ”Politics got in the way tonight, and for that I apologize,” Haridopolos said. Despite the extra innings, legislative leaders said they were delivering to the electorate a message of mission accomplished. ”If they’re going to grade us on financial discipline and fiscal conservatism, I’d like to think we passed that test with flying colors,” said Haridopolos, a Merritt Island Republican running for the U.S. Senate, earlier in the evening. But Democrats, unions and left-leaning groups preferred the word “disaster.” ”It’s a tea-party train wreck,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. “What’s guiding the principles of this chamber is the Republican primary of 2012.” One political prize eluded Scott: a watered-down immigration-reform plan died in the House once the clock reached midnight. The governor had aggressively called for “Arizona-style” reform on the campaign trail, but dropped his demand in the final weeks of session. A last-day lobbying effort by Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll to get the Senate to ban automatic deduction of union dues from public workers’ paychecks also fell short. But the first-year governor did win a portion of his job-creation agenda: $30 million in corporate income-tax cuts — he sought $458 million — $210 million in property tax cuts, and a new “Department of Economic Opportunity” that will emerge from the ashes of the state’s current agencies overseeing economic development, workforce training agency and growth. Lawmakers also broke a weeks-long impasse by voting unanimously for a bill that would crack down on “pill mills,” rogue pain clinics responsible for Florida leading the nation in painkiller sales. The House spent most of the day Friday debating the $69.7 billion budget that is the only bill lawmakers are constitutionally required to pass. But they couldn’t begin voting until 10:16 p.m., honoring a 72-hour “cooling off” period that began Tuesday night. The spending plan will cut $1.35 billion in classroom spending; $1.3 billion in Medicaid payments to hospitals, HMOs and nursing homes; raises university tuition; and eliminates some 4,500 state jobs, 1,300 of which are filled. Although budget-writers lamented the dour economy, their spending plan socks away more than $2.2 billion in reserves and is laced with hundreds of millions of dollars in hometown construction projects for powerful politicians, including a $5 million rowing boathouse in Sarasota, a botanical garden in Polk County, and more than $68 million for Cannon’s home turf in Central Florida. Because lawmakers crammed so much policy change into budget bills reserved for the last day, powerless House Democrats agreed to strict time-limits that capped debate on most of the 45 budget bills to four minutes, two minutes for each side. The House spent 12 minutes debating the budget’s $1.35 billion cut to public-school classrooms, equaling $542 less per-student next fall. Another bill that diverts more than $500 million from trust funds that would have otherwise gone to building roads and affordable housing got four minutes of floor time. Florida Transportation Builders President Bob Burleson said the $150 million raid on road-building dollars would cost 7,000 jobs and “be felt with statewide job losses and increased congestion on our roadways,” and called on Scott to veto it. The budget provides $30 million for Everglades restoration — down from a high of $200 million in the past years — but no money for land conservation unless the state can sell off other surplus lands and unused office space. It privatizes some 16,000 prisoners in 18 South Florida counties, and allows private companies to bid for all health-care services in the nation’s third-largest prison system. ”This jobs budget is an oxymoron,” said Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando. And it cuts more than $1 billion in benefits for the 572,000 active public employees in the Florida Retirement System by making them begin contributing 3 percent of their paychecks to their retirement accounts, a move Scott has called a “first step” toward completely ending taxpayer contributions to public pensions. ”Once again this Legislature has chosen big business and lobbyists over the middle-class and public-sector workers,” said Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg. In the 25 minutes allotted to talk about the growth-law repeal, Republicans said the law that requires developers to provide for adequate roads, schools and other infrastructure hadn’t stopped bad development or sprawl. ”Never pass growth-management laws in the middle of a bull market,” said Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, referring to 2005 when GOP lawmakers actually toughened the growth laws. “There’s a reason they’re constantly tweaked year after year — because they’ve never worked.” Democrats said repealing the law was a capitulation to the business lobby, which has contributed millions of dollars to GOP candidates and causes, and would do nothing to create new jobs. ”We have 1 million vacant residential units in the state,” complained Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando. “Building more is not going to make it stop.” By party-line votes in both chambers, lawmakers also passed a massive rewrite of the state’s Medicaid program Friday, shuttling the majority of the state’s 3.1 million Medicaid recipients to managed-care programs like HMOs and provider-service networks. Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who shepherded the bill, said that the revamp would provide better care for some of the state’s most vulnerable poor and elderly residents while curbing costs in a program expected to cost $22 billion next year. ”Why don’t we treat our friends and neighbors on Medicaid the way we would want to be treated, which is as patients and not wards of the state?” he said. The crux of the plan is to divide the state into 11 regions; managed-care organizations would serve Medicaid patients in their assigned region, beginning in 2013. Each region will include a provider-service network that is operated by a health-care provider, such as a hospital, or a group of providers, including doctors, as an option. Additionally, if patients think they can find a better deal, they can shop around for plans and then receive a stipend to pay for it. Medicaid recipients with developmental disabilities — about 30,000 people — are excluded from managed care and will use the “iBudget,” a personalized spending plan that is capped. Democrats still expressed major problems with the measure, which was loosely modeled after a five-county pilot program in Broward County and northeast Florida. Reviews of that program have been mixed, largely because several HMOs withdrew from the plan, saying they were losing money, resulting in patients having to switch providers multiple times. Democrats said there was no evidence to show that the state would save money or help patients under an expansion of that plan. The bill also offers some lawsuit protections to doctors who take Medicaid patients. Noneconomic damages are capped at $300,000 per claimant, with an individual doctor’s liability capped at $200,000. The plan is contingent on the federal government’s approval. Originally, the Senate said it would withdraw from the federal Medicaid plan if it did not get a federal OK, but it backed down from that plan in its compromise. ”What we’re doing here tonight is quite remarkable,” said Rep. Robert Schenck, the Tampa-area Republican carrying the Medicaid reform But Democratic Rep. Charles Chestnut, D-Gainesville, disagreed. “This sucks,” he said on the floor, shortly before it passed Friday night.