By GARY FINEOUT and KELLI KENNEDY
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Senate leaders said Friday they won’t back down on expanding Medicaid and maintaining hospital funding, as the legislative session nears its end with no budget agreement in sight, but they are willing to use money saved by expanding Medicaid to boost education spending.
The Senate proposes using $264 million from Medicaid expansion to increase student funding to what leaders called the highest level in state history. They also want to extend the session until June 30 in hopes that the federal government will offer a preliminary decision on whether it will extend the funds that help hospitals who treat Medicaid and uninsured patients. The regular session is scheduled to end next Friday, and the two chambers have been locked in a tense budget dispute.
An extended session would allow the Senate to keep pressure on the House and Gov. Rick Scott, who also opposes expanding Medicaid to more than 800,000 low-income Floridians.
Earlier this week, House leaders seemed resigned to the prospect of a special session. They were heard behind closed doors encouraging each other to hold strong, despite the negative publicity a special session might generate, and not to waiver on expanding Medicaid, which is a key component of President Obama’s health law. Both sides would have to agree to an extended session. If they do it would keep all bills alive, instead of having to start from scratch in a special session later on.
Late Thursday, the House offered to trim back spending on tax cuts and education to boost spending in the state’s safety net hospitals. The offer, however, would be unconnected to a push by the Senate to expand Medicaid or revamp an existing program that takes federal money for hospitals.
While the two sides are still far apart, the House’s proposal was enough to jumpstart stalled budget conversations.
Senate Republicans said they appreciated the start of a “dialogue” with the House, but maintained they were not willing now to back off their support for expansion. They also have refused to set aside any money so far for tax cuts pushed by Scott and House Republicans.
The Senate also wants to keep about $600 million in reserves in case the federal government decides not to extend the more than $1 billion per year in hospital funds. Federal health officials have been clear that Medicaid expansion must be part of the conversation, adding pressure to the standoff between the House and Senate.
Sen. Tom Lee, the Brandon Republican and Senate budget chief, said the top priority for the Senate is to “provide a short and long term solution to the challenges we’re facing in health care.”
“Until we have clarity and visibility to the health care funding picture in Florida, there can be no other priorities,” Lee said.