- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 21, 2015

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - With time running out, Florida Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday injected himself into the state’s ongoing budget showdown, telling Republican legislators that he would call them back into a special session if they fail to reach a deal soon.

Scott made his suggestion at the end of a topsy-turvy day that witnessed GOP leaders in the Florida House and Senate remaining firm in their positions regarding health care funding and whether to expand Medicaid. The impasse means legislators will not pass a new budget by the May 1 end of the regular session.

Scott said in a statement that he believed a “compromise” could be reached that still allowed for the tax cuts and school spending increases he wants. But failing that, Scott suggested legislators could return in a special session and pass a new state budget that keeps spending at this year’s levels. Such a move would mean that Scott would fail to win passage of his two top priorities this year.

“I remain committed to giving Florida families back more of the tax money they pay into government, and I hope that the Senate will agree to do this in order to grow our economy,” he said.

But Scott’s suggestion was met with a shrug among GOP leaders, who remain at odds about what to do amid the looming loss of more than $1 billion in federal aid now flowing to the state’s hospitals. That has resulted in House and Senate budgets being $4 billion apart as the two sides have gone in opposite directions.

Impassioned senators, including many Republicans, tried to put aside politics and put a human face on the bickering among the House, Senate, Scott and the Obama administration about Medicaid expansion and funds for hospitals that serve low-income patients.

“The people that we’re trying to take care of under the (Senate proposal) are people who are actually working,” Republican Sen. Rene Garcia said. They are individuals “that we are denying access to primary care because of politics, because of political dogma, and that is just wrong.”

Florida has known for well over a year that federal funds for hospitals would end June 30. That’s because the Obama administration is transitioning to a system that uses taxpayer money to help individuals buy health insurance instead of reimbursing hospitals for caring for them.

The Republican-led Senate proposed a plan that would ultimately take federal money to allow Medicaid-eligible recipients to purchase private health insurance, while paying a small monthly premium. But Scott and House Republicans remain staunchly opposed. That’s put them in a lengthy showdown with the federal government, which insists Medicaid expansion must be part of the solution.

“This is a very real problem, not just for the completion of our session, but for the image of the Republican Party in America,” said Sen. Tom Lee, the Senate budget chief. “And I do not think that the House or the governor wants this blood on their hands when this cart goes into the ditch.”

Meanwhile, during a closed-door meeting, the House Majority Office presented GOP legislators with detailed talking points that encouraged them to hold strong in their opposition of Medicaid expansion and cited a study that maintains that Medicaid coverage does not improve health care.

Chief among the arguments were concerns that the Obama administration has proven untrustworthy by trying to force Medicaid on the state and can’t be trusted to actually pay the bill. The arguments also alleged there is no flexibility in Medicaid expansion - although the feds have struck deals with several states, including Indiana, allowing them to craft unique programs.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli urged members to “trust us,” saying he believes the feds will likely cave and extend the hospital funds.

“We have lived through special sessions before. There is a great deal of negative press,” according to a copy of his notes. “There is power from special interests. However we are on the right side of the issue and the right side of history.”

Russ Armistead, CEO of Shands Jacksonville, called the fight a “human tragedy.” His hospitals stand to lose $95 million.

“If I lose it, I’ll close in a few months,” Armistead told senators, noting his organization is the seventh largest employer in Jacksonville.


Kennedy contributed from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

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