Winners and losers of the Florida Legislature’s special session

Written by John Kennedy/Presentation by Kristina Webb; Palm Beach Post staff

Working into June on a state budget for the first time in 23 years, Florida lawmakers avoided a government shutdown by approving a $78.7 billion spending plan Friday evening.
But the long battle left a few bruises.

Gov. Rick Scott and legislative leaders didn’t get all they wanted. Talk back in March of almost $700 million in tax breaks got downsized amid a long fight over the Senate’s unsuccessful push to expand health coverage for the uninsured.

And the special session that started June 1 after the regular 60-day legislative session ended without a budget will cost taxpayers.

The cost of the extra 19 days of legislating? It’s still being calculated. But history shows taxpayers will pony up anywhere from $24,000- to $87,000-a-day, or in other words probably somewhere in the $500,000-$1.5 million range.

Scott is now reviewing the budget. He’s expected to sign it, while issuing a round of line-item vetoes before this year’s budget expires July 1.

How did some of the top players, and special interests, fare? Take a look inside.

Gov. Rick Scott

Scott joined with the House in blocking the Senate’s bid for a privatized form of Medicaid expansion to cover the state’s low-income uninsured.

But killing the Florida Health Insurance Exchange (FHIX) hurt a few of his objectives, too. Scott’s ambitious $673 million tax-cut package got whittled down by $250 million, with lawmakers pouring taxpayer money into hospitals to offset a loss of low income pool funding.

The governor’s bid for record high per-pupil school spending also fell short although the Legislature endorsed his demand for no tuition hikes. His wish for a dedicated source of funding for Everglades restoration was a non-starter. Lastly, his relationship with some Republican senators looks ready for repair.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli

Crisafulli — backed by Scott and a legislative pit bull in his House budget chief Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes — dug in early against the Senate’s FHIX.

But in stamping out FHIX, he agreed to steer $400 million to hospitals, forcing him to drastically cut a House tax-cut package that originally was even bigger than Scott’s. He also wanted to issue bonds to spend more on schools and, maybe, the environment, but the Senate refused.

Still, Crisafulli’s home Brevard County drew more than its share in the budget, even as his opposition to conservation land-buying left Florida Forever with a spartan $17.4 million.

At session’s end, though, a question lingers of whether he or Corcoran really commands the House.

Senate President Andy Gardiner

The Senate boss, a Republican like Scott and Crisafulli, bet big on FHIX and busted, but he drew the praise of Democrats and editorial writers with his push to cover hundreds of thousands of Floridians without insurance.

In the end, though, the FHIX fight became what Tallahassee knows best — a special interest battle. And Gardiner got concessions from the House for hospitals like the one that employs him at a salary of six-figures-a-year as a vice-president. Gardiner also brought home plenty in the budget for his Orlando hometown.

A priority of the Senate president was expanding personal learning scholarships for special needs students and $40 million to trim the waiting list for disabilities’ services. He got both.

Hospitals

Hospitals were on the ropes for three months. But the worst they’re facing now is what one senator called a “haircut” in government funding.

An expected cut by the federal government in the low income pool that reimburses more than 200 hospitals providing charity care fueled the Legislature’s fight over FHIX. While FHIX failed, an injection of $400 million from Florida taxpayers will ease the blow. That will give hospitals a total of about $2.2 billion to draw from, but they will still face a $700 million reduction in funding.

And more cuts are coming next year. But legislators, and the industry, don’t want to pump more state tax revenue into propping up hospitals. Where it goes is uncertain. For his part, Scott is turning up the focus on hospital profit margins, signaling he is skeptical of their demands.

Environment

Voter-approved Amendment 1 was expected to boost green spending this year. But the results are much less than what environmentalists hoped, and some are grumbling that the voice of voters has been ignored.

The $17.4 million budgeted for Florida Forever, the state’s premier land-buying program, is a small fraction of what conservationists and even Scott sought. The Everglades Foundation’s campaign to buy land south of Lake Okeechobee for water storage never stood a chance in the Legislature, nor did Scott’s request for committing dollars long-term for the Everglades ever took off.

The $81.8 million for Everglades restoration, not land-buying, is drawing mostly shrugs – seen as not enough to really forge much progress. Because of money already set aside, work continues on the troubled Indian River Lagoon and other estuaries. And the $49 million dedicated to freshwater springs is close to what Scott had sought.

Education

A 3 percent boost will bring average per-pupil spending to $7,097, short of the record $7,126 level set by former Gov. Charlie Crist, which Scott had vowed to top.

But the battle over hospital money, and an influx of 30,000 more students this year, erased prospects for exceeding the per-pupil cash of pre-recession 2007-08. Moreover, 63 percent of the $579 million in new money for schools will come from local property taxpayers, who are shouldering a larger burden of the school bill as home values climb.

The remainder comes from state dollars. But critics say the property bills will diminish the impact of a $429 million tax cut handed out by lawmakers.

In higher education, tuition at colleges and universities was unchanged, a Scott priority. But locally, Palm Beach State College and Florida Atlantic University did not get any of the money they sought for building projects.

Taxpayers

Unlike other years, when tax reductions have tended to favor businesses, this year’s $429 million package of tax cuts is consumer-friendly.

The biggest piece will reduce the tax paid on phone and television services. On a $100 monthly cellphone bill, customers will save about $1.75. Consumers also get a 10-day sales tax holiday on back-to-school clothing and supplies that begins Aug. 7, and college textbooks will be tax-free for a year beginning July 1.

But, as previously noted, most of the state’s new school money will come from property taxes rather than general revenue, which includes sales taxes and other fees.

And the tax cuts could’ve been bigger. The bigger reductions that Scott and the House wanted shrunk when the Legislature agreed to divert $400 million to hospitals.

All told, taxpayers, too, became casualties in the Legislature’s long fight over FHIX.

Photos: The Palm Beach Post, Getty and provided images