Ready for conference? Senate approves $70.7 billion budget

Feb 23, 2012

The following article was published in The Florida Current on February 23, 2012:

Ready for conference? Senate approves $70.7 billion budget

By Travis Pillow

With a bipartisan vote, Florida Senate on Thursday teed up a $70.7 billion budget for negotiations with the House.

The Senate’s 2012-13 budget is about $1.5 billion larger than its House counterpart. Unlike the House, the Senate plan sweeps $265 million from the Lawton Chiles Endowment. It asks local governments to pick up a greater share of hospital funding and for universities to rely on cash balances for a year to withstand a funding reduction of nearly $400 million.

The appropriations act passed 33-6, with four Democrats and two Republicans in opposition.

In its current form, the Senate’s spending plan would save nearly $219 million in general revenue by shifting Medicaid hospital reimbursements to intergovernmental transfers, a move that could amount to a cut for hospitals if local hospital districts do not make up the lost revenue.

However, Senate Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Joe Negron, R-Palm City, said he had met considerable pushback from public hospitals and intended to back away from that change in favor of a straightforward rate reduction, likely equal to or less than the 7 percent House is proposing.

The Medicaid conforming bill would also gain an estimated $77.5 million in general revenue by docking sales tax revenue transferred to local governments. The move is intended to recoup 85 percent of unpaid Medicaid bills the state says are owed by county governments. In future years, the proceeds from this change would be used to replenish the Chiles fund.

Sen. Steve Oelrich, R-Gainesville, said counties dispute some of the Medicaid charges and that the change could harm the rural counties he represents. Negron said he planned to stick with the that plan, noting it would spot the counties 15 percent of the payment backlog to help offset any inequities in the distribution of disputed bills.  

“A lot of these counties owe the state of Florida money,” he said. 

Oelrich was one of the Republicans to vote against the budget. He decried the number of member projects, some of which were added on Thursday through floor amendments.

The Senate eliminated nearly $500 million from its spending plan by removing expressway authorities in Orange and Hillsborough Counties from the state budget, a change that brings it more in line with the House. Amendments by Senate Majority Leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, stripped proviso and conforming bill language bringing their spending into the overall budget and blocking new bonds to pay for the Wekiva Parkway.

The Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority authority on Wednesday approved an agreement with the Florida Department of Transportation that requires it to repay its debts to the state at a rate of $20 million a year starting in 2013. Those payments would have to be prioritized over other spending.

Senate Budget Chairman JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who has previously questioned specifics of the Wekiva project and called for consolidating the expressway authorities, said the agreement helped allay many of his concerns about the authority’s operations.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said he expects to begin conference negotiations next week, but that is still not a sure thing. He said Alexander and House Appropriations Chairman Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, were having “productive conversations” about the allocations that make up the broad outline of the state spending plan.

Find this article here: