Fla. lawmakers: Signs of agreement, differences


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner entered the legislative session Tuesday with a set of shared priorities -- dubbed "Work Plan 2015" -- that includes cutting taxes, crafting a water policy and boosting education spending.

But as Crisafulli and Gardiner addressed their chambers before Gov. Rick Scott's State of the State address, they showed signs of having some priorities that don't quite line up.

For example, Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, touted the need to reform state and local government pensions. While the Senate has supported efforts to revamp local pensions, it has not gone along with past House attempts to change the Florida Retirement System. Those attempts involved moving away from traditional pensions and toward 401(k)-style plans for state workers and others, including teachers.

Crisafulli said lawmakers need to take steps to overhaul pensions to avoid the possibility of future benefit cuts for retirees and tax increases.

"It's an issue we can't afford to ignore,'' Crisafulli said.

Meanwhile, on the other end of the Capitol's fourth floor, Gardiner said a Senate committee this week will explore the possibility of expanding health-care coverage for low-income Floridians. House Republicans have refused to accept tens of billions of dollars in federal money under the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid.

The Senate Health Policy Committee on Wednesday will hold a workshop to discuss possibilities, including an idea that involves using the federal money to provide coverage through private health insurers. Gardiner said the Senate has an "obligation" to look at the coverage issue, particularly because the state might lose about $1 billion in federal funding for a health-care program known as the Low Income Pool.

"I don't know how it ends, I haven't read the last chapter on this one," Gardiner, R-Orlando, said of the coverage issue. "But we, at least in the Senate, will have the discussion if that is the best way to go for Florida."

Crisafulli said after the State of the State address that House Republicans are "not interested in expanding Medicaid as we know it." The idea that would use federal money to provide coverage through private health insurers is backed by a coalition known as "A Healthy Florida Works," which includes Associated Industries of Florida and other business groups.

"For us, we've looked at that particular plan --- obviously, they (senators) may have a hybrid of it of some sort --- but there's still a lot of unanswered questions on that, and certainly it's their prerogative to workshop something like that,'' Crisafulli said.

As the "Work Plan 2015" suggests, Gardiner and Crisafulli agree on at least the outlines of several major issues. The plan, for instance, calls for "broad-based meaningful tax relief initiatives."

Crisafulli said Tuesday he hopes to pass a tax-cut package that will surpass $500 million.

Another part of the leaders' shared agenda will be to increase educational and job opportunities for people with disabilities. Gardiner, whose son has Down syndrome, has long championed such issues, and Crisafulli has backed the effort.

"Our society is stronger when opportunity for success exists, especially for those who need it most,'' Crisafulli said