A long-brewing storm finally hit land in Florida when at the end of the 2015 legislative session, the House decided to adjourn three days before the scheduled sine die date. Speaker Steve Crisafulli (R-Merritt Island) addressed his chamber in the afternoon of April 28 and said, “We didn’t get everything we wanted and we won’t get everything that we hoped, but we have done all that we can do for this session,” before gavelling the chamber’s session to a close and telling representatives to leave Tallahassee “until the Senate decides they are ready to negotiate.”
This unprecedented move was immediately criticized by the Senate, which filed a lawsuit with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that the move was illegal, as the state constitution states that no chamber may adjourn for more than 72 hours without passing a concurrent resolution.
“Nobody won. Taxpayers lost. It’s an unfortunate turn of events,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner (R-Orlando) after the sudden adjournment.
What could cause such a violent rift in an overwhelmingly single-party state? A debate over the expansion of Medicaid that began at the beginning of the session. The Senate wants to expand Medicaid in an effort to balance out the federal government phasing out a reimbursement program for hospitals that care for low-income patients, known as the Low Income Pool (LIP). The House is against the expansion of Medicaid, citing that if the state does not expand Medicaid, those that make 100%-400% of the poverty level can receive subsidies to buy insurance in the online marketplace. However, if a patient is eligible for Medicaid, they are not eligible for the LIP subsidies. Speaker Crisafulli argued that expanding Medicaid would force currently uninsured residents into Medicaid, and therefore ineligible to receive subsidies to purchase the insurance plan of their choosing.
The problems with the Medicaid debate became apparent in the state’s budget. The House proposed a budget that included $1.3 billion from federal funds to cover LIP coverage. The Senate amended the budget to rely on $50 billion of federal funds and outline an alternative LIP plan with the expansion of Medicaid. The two budgets differed by $4.2 billion total and both chambers refused to budge.
Governor Rick Scott (R) sided with the House, saying in a statement, “It is important to note that we still do not have any evidence that the federal government would approve work requirements for the Medicaid program. However, there are other ideas we could begin to explore to increase access to healthcare, including having the federal government give the state a 100 percent federally funded block grant to develop a flexible program that meets the unique needs of Florida’s population.”
With the sine die date of May 1 approaching, and the June 30 budget deadline looming, things turned ugly. Governor Scott reportedly individually told Republican Senators that he would veto their priority bills if they did not cooperate with his budget plan. When the House adjourned early, many senators and lobbyists called the move childish, likening it to a toddler’s temper tantrum.
In response to the Senate’s lawsuit, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) tweeted, “This lawsuit reads like it was researched and drafted by Sen Joyner … and spell checked by Sen Bullard.” The tweet immediately drew criticism as being racist as both Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner (D-Tampa) and Senator Dwight Bullard (D-Cutler Bay) are black. Senator Joyner said that the tweet was a “racist barb,” and added “His words are the kind I have fought against my entire life, the relic of days through which I lived and hope never to live through again.” Speaker Crisafulli tweeted “I don’t condone the Tweet by @MattGaetz. He is an agitator, yes, but not a racist. Please accept my apology to those offended.” Representative Gaetz responded, “My criticisms of ObamaCare Expansion and it’s [sic] supporters are based solely on the facts. Deeply sorry if anyone read more into it than that.”
The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the early walk out was indeed unconstitutional, however, since the Senate filed the suit one day before scheduled Sine Die, there was no point in ordering the House to return. More than 1,500 bills died at the end of session, hundreds in part to the early House adjournment. Among them were changes to address corruption in the Department of Corrections, allowing the use of medical marijuana and bills allowing ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft to operate legally in the state.
As bad blood still lingers in the chambers in Tallahassee, it is unclear when the two chambers may come back for a special session to pass a budget before the June 30 deadline. Senate President Gardiner has suggested reconvening for three weeks in June, but neither Speaker Crisafulli not Governor Scott has made any statement about when they are willing to talk.