Florida Lawmakers Go into Overtime Debating Budget

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida lawmakers stumbled into overtime early Saturday, delaying agreement on a proposed $69.7 billion budget.

Legislators approved a major overhaul of Medicaid on Friday and appeared on the way to a smooth finish before things unraveled shortly before midnight.

When it came time to finish, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon couldn't find one another and the chambers took the unusual step of extending the session until 6 p.m. Saturday to buy enough time to work out the last-minute kinks that delayed their conclusion. As it turned out, the House still had work to do.

Haridopolos asked senators to stay around until 1 a.m. just in case.

The only thing the Legislature is obligated to do during the annual 60-day legislative session is to pass a balanced budget.

Despite increasing rancor within GOP ranks in recent days, lawmakers passed several pro-business measures starting with a property insurance bill that commercial insurers lobbied heavily for and a deregulation bill favored by business and developers that could result in more urban sprawl and fewer environmental considerations.

Some critics claimed the Republican-led Legislature lost valuable time focusing on volatile social issues such as abortion and gun issues late in the session when more attention should have been given to meeting new Republican Gov. Rick Scott's goal of creating jobs.

The historic Medicaid measure (HB 7109) just beat the clock, getting final approval a couple of hours before adjournment. The bill makes major changes to the Medicaid program, putting the care of nearly 3 million beneficiaries into the hands of private companies and hospital networks. Supporters claimed the overhaul is necessary to rein in the more than $20 billion-a-year program. It expands a five-county pilot program that was criticized for allowing providers to earn big profits by scrimping on patient care.

The Senate later rejected a House proposal that would have deregulated interior designers on a 32-6 vote.

The Senate and House failed to agree on new restrictions for a tough Arizona-style immigration law backed by Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi. An Arizona-style bill would allow police, during a legal stop or arrest, to ask for a detainee's immigration documents if an officer suspects the individual is in the country illegally.

Bondi, however, got her top priority Friday when lawmakers agreed on a measure to clamp down on rogue doctors and pain management clinics, sometimes called "pill mills," that supply drug dealers and addicts with illicit prescription painkillers.

Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, defended the amount of time spent on debating the abortion issue for a second straight year.

"To a lot of people in this state, pro-life issues are very important," Haridopolos said Friday during a mid-afternoon visit with reporters. "This is part of the social fabric. A lot of people run on social issues so we did give those folks some time."

Consumer groups were largely outraged with a session where Republicans held a veto-proof majority of better than 2-to-1 in both chambers.

"The majority party, emboldened by a two-thirds majority, aggressively went after the courts, voters, labor groups, trial lawyers and anyone else they deemed a threat to their power," said Brad Ashwell, spokesman for Florida PIRG. "Middle class Floridians will see higher insurance rates, higher phone rates, more sprawl, and more obstacles to having a voice in their elections."

Unemployed workers also got hit by passage of a bill (HB 7005) in the final hours that cuts maximum state benefits from 26 to 23 weeks when the jobless rate is 10.5 percent or higher.

The Legislature started the session by passing a bill that would base teacher pay on merit while also stripping tenure for new hires and ended with several bills making it more difficult for women to obtain abortions. In between, they cut down on the number of days voters would be able to take advantage of early voting and attempted to dramatically restructure the state's court system -- in what some observers saw as little more than payback for judicial decisions last year striking some legislative amendments from the ballot.

"We didn't focus enough on jobs," complained House Democratic Minority Leader Ron Saunders, D-Key West. "We spent a lot of time on abortion and immigration instead of things that have any impact on jobs."

Haridopolos disagreed, pointing to major reforms on Medicaid, education and the state pension system as issues that any on their own might have been significant achievements in past years. He also cited balancing the state budget in tough economic times without raising taxes.

"I thought it was a solid session," said Haridopolos, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate and a possible challenge to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson next year. "This was a very trying year in many cases."

Haridopolos relied heavily on Sen. Joe Negron, who shepherded the Medicaid bill, budget chairman JD Alexander and rules chair John Thrasher, a former House speaker.

Cannon, R-Winter Park, tried but failed to remake the Florida Supreme Court to his liking, dividing it into separate divisions for criminal and civil appeals, bumping the number of justices from 7 to 10.

"It was clearly a personal issue for the speaker," said Saunders. "In the end, he almost blew up the whole budget negotiation."

More court participation is likely too with some legislation sure to be challenged.

"The conclusion of the legislative session is just the start of the litigation season," said Howard Simon, executive director of the ACLU of Florida. "This Tea Party takeover of Tallahassee has produced the most dramatic big government roll-backs of personal freedom and civil liberties in recent years - maybe in Florida history."

Lawmakers also made it more difficult for injured plaintiffs to win product liability damages from auto makers and other manufacturers. The new law would require juries to consider the fault of all persons who contributed to an accident when apportioning damages. They also overhauled medical malpractice suits with a measure that increases the burden of proof for plaintiffs and provides some immunity from lawsuits for doctors who volunteer to help high school and collegiate sports teams..

State workers again took the brunt of nearly $4 billion in cuts this year. For the fifth straight year, rank-and-file state workers will go without a pay increases and for the first time are required to contribute 3 percent of their wages toward their pensions.