- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The Republican-led Florida Legislature kicked off its annual session Tuesday with the usual pomp, but the celebratory nature was overshadowed by lingering questions about the state budget, tax cuts and health care.

The two GOP legislators in charge opened the session by stressing areas on which they plan to work in tandem over the next 60 days. That included dealing with the state’s standardized testing system.

But Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli struck decidedly different tones when discussing Florida’s budget and the prospect of Medicaid expansion.

Crisafulli told House members that one of his top goals for the session was to enact at least $500 million in tax cuts - which would put the Legislature close to the goal sought by Gov. Rick Scott for this year.

“Tax cuts are essential to improve Florida’s business climate and make our state more affordable for our families,” the Merritt Island Republican said.

But Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, barely mentioned tax cuts during his brief speech before the Florida Senate. Instead, Gardiner warned about the prospect of losing more than $1 billion in federal aid that now goes to the state to help its hospitals treat the poor and uninsured.

Gardiner said the Senate “should have the discussion” on whether to consider expanding the state’s Medicaid program in light of the potential loss of the federal money. Florida has refused to accept billions in federal aid to expand the health care program because it is tied to President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul.

“I don’t know where it ends … but we have an obligation to look at this issue,” Gardiner said. “I haven’t read the last chapter on this one. But we at least in the Senate will have the discussion if that’s the best way to go for Florida.”

Gardiner said a Senate panel would consider a plan backed by a coalition of business leaders, health advocates, and hospitals that calls for accepting Medicaid money and then giving it to consumers so they could purchase private insurance.

It’s still unclear, however, if the House would consider the plan. Crisafulli told reporters that the House remains opposed to Medicaid expansion, as it has for the past two years. He acknowledged that the existing program to help hospitals - called the low-income pool - would not continue to receive federal money. But he said state officials remain hopeful they can come up with an alternative version of the plan that could still draw down some federal money.

Crisafulli said during his speech that he wants to push ahead with changes to the Florida Retirement System, the main state pension plan, even though similar proposals have died in the Senate in recent years. Gardiner told reporters that the proposal - which calls for shifting state workers away from the pension plan into a 401(k)-styled plan - still lacks enough votes to pass.

The opening day of the session did not feature much actual work. The Florida Senate did pass a bill Tuesday that would require the reporting of injuries to greyhounds used in live races. The provisions of the Senate bill (SB 2) are included in a mammoth gambling bill that a top House Republican unveiled a day earlier.

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Associated Press Writer William March contributed to this story.

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Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: https://twitter.com/fineout

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