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House Sends Budget Offer to Senate

The state House sent an initial budget offer to the Senate on Thursday, an apparent effort to jump-start moribund efforts to reach an agreement on a spending plan for the year that begins July 1.

It wasn't clear if the proposal was enough to get lawmakers talking about their budget differences, which have now ensured that lawmakers will fail to reach a deal on their one constitutionally required duty by the May 1 end of the annual legislative session. But the offer marked an unexpected step forward in what had been shaping up to be a protracted battle over health-care funding in the differing plans.

The House offer would use $200 million in state money, and draw down another $300 million in federal funding, to offset potential losses to hospitals from a pending federal decision on the Low Income Pool, or LIP, program.

State officials have been negotiating with the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services over funding for LIP, which is largely used to cover the expenses of uninsured, low-income Floridians who show up at hospitals needing treatment. That program is set to expire June 30.

Senate leaders have been pushing for a plan that would bring in $2.2 billion for LIP and use $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion funds to help low-income residents purchase private health insurance. But the House and Gov. Rick Scott are fiercely opposed to using the expansion dollars, which come from the federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, conceded that the idea proposed Thursday would not fully cover the loss of the LIP program if it were to expire.

"I don't think that necessarily hospitals should be held harmless on the whole thing from the standpoint of what the feds have typically given them," he said. "But if we can find ways to kind up shore them up a little bit, that would certainly be a conversation-starter --- at least we feel it is."

The House sent the offer over about 1:30 p.m., Crisafulli said, when both chambers were in session. Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, did not mention the offer when speaking to reporters after the Senate adjourned. A spokeswoman said Gardiner and his staff were still reviewing the proposal Thursday evening.

"As we move to the final week of session, the president and speaker have made great progress towards completing their joint agenda," Gardiner spokeswoman Katie Betta said by email. "Many of the outstanding items are related to the budget, so the president appreciates the offer Speaker Crisafulli made this afternoon and is looking forward to working together as we head towards the finish line."

Betta also pointed to statements by Gardiner earlier this week, when he indicated the Senate would look to spend $600 million, and draw down additional federal matching funds, if LIP were to expire completely. Gardiner also said that neither LIP nor the expansion proposal individually could "address the health care challenges facing our state."

The House would finance its proposal by dipping into other priorities. It would reduce public education funding by $90.3 million from the initial House budget, though that would still mark an increase overall. The House would also shave $78.5 million off a tax-cut proposal and take $50 million out of reserves, as well as making an array of smaller tweaks to make the whole plan balance.

Lawmakers would still have significant issues to iron out if they can get past their differences on health care. The House's overall budget plan weighs in at $76.2 billion, compared to $80.4 billion for the Senate.

Democrats were skeptical about the House proposal.

"My feeling is if we're offering plans last minute ... I cannot imagine there's any well thought-out or intended goal at this late hour, doing that type of last-minute submission to the Senate," said House Minority Leader Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach.

Still, if the offer prompts more negotiations, it would mark the first concrete movement on the budget in weeks. But even with the chasm separating the two sides, leaders on both sides have worked to provide at least the appearance that discussions are cordial.

"My view is that people have been very, very respectful on balance," said Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon. "And to have gotten this far in the process with as little acrimony as we have had play out in the media is really an extraordinary accomplishment."

J.M. "Mac" Stipanovich, a Republican consultant and lobbyist, said Crisafulli and Gardiner were dealing with a fraught issue while avoiding the almost open warfare that sometimes accompanied even smaller disagreements between the chambers.

"If you look at the rhetoric and the body language and all that sort of stuff, I would suggest that given the magnitude of the differences ... the discussion has been remarkably without rancor," Stipanovich said.

The back-and-forth between House and Senate leaders seems to mark a difference from the cozy relationship enjoyed by former House Speaker Will Weatherford and former Senate President Don Gaetz, who oversaw their respective chambers the past two years. But Weatherford and Gaetz rarely had deep disagreements, making it easier to portray a strong partnership, Stipanovich said.

"If you're taking your wife to Europe, y'all are going to get along just fine," he joked.

House Appropriations Chairman Richard Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, also sounded conciliatory earlier this week when talking about the standoff.

"The lines of communication are great, and I think that it'll work itself out," he said Wednesday.

Corcoran spoke as the House's post-session music --- a staple of the final weeks of lawmakers' annual gathering --- was winding down. The song was "These Boots Are Made for Walking," with the trademark line: "One of these days these boots are gonna walk all over you."

By Thursday, the House had chosen a different selection. As reporters entered the chamber, the sound system began playing "Everything Is Awesome."

Source: News Service of Florida