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Scott, Gardiner jostle over special session

Senate Democrats asks Florida Supreme Court to force the House to return

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The battle over the messy end to the legislative session raged on Thursday, as Gov. Rick Scott and Senate President Andy Gardiner released competing visions for a special session on the state budget and as Senate Democrats asked the Florida Supreme Court to force the House to return to the Capitol on Friday.

 The events showed that the conclusion of the regular session remained mired in controversy and that state leaders are perhaps as sharply divided as ever about how to finish work on a spending plan for the budget year that begins July 1.

 Scott, who has largely avoided the legislative fray on the budget, said Thursday that he would begin working with lawmakers on a way out of the complicated disagreement between the House and the Senate.

 Senate leaders want to use $2.8 billion in Medicaid expansion dollars to help lower-income Floridians purchase private health insurance, in part to encourage the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services to extend another program that provides $2.2 billion to medical providers.

 The Low Income Pool, or LIP, program is set to expire on June 30 without an agreement with the federal government. Scott, who opposes Medicaid expansion, said he hopes federal officials will eventually approve his administration's request to continue LIP. The request was submitted last week, almost a year after state officials were made aware that the funding would run out.

 "However, we should begin preparing a budget in the interim that could be taken up in a special session without any LIP funding and without any expansion of Obamacare," Scott said, using the common name for the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes Medicaid expansion. "I look forward to continuing to work with Senate and House leaders in the weeks ahead to address critical funding needs and identify when and how we can direct over $1 billion in surplus state tax revenue back to the Florida citizens who earned it."

 Scott also floated the idea of the federal government allowing Florida to operate Medicaid as a block-grant program, which would give the state far greater control over how to run the system.

 In an interview with The News Service of Florida, Gardiner said he welcomed Scott's proposal of a block grant.

 "For I don't know how many months now, we have been asking the governor and others, 'Bring us ideas; bring us suggestions,' " said Gardiner, R-Orlando. "The block grant idea has been around for a while. Certainly, we would love to have that dialogue and that discussion."

 But he cast doubt on the idea of moving forward with a budget that didn't include LIP, in particular. Gardiner hinted that it could imperil other budget priorities --- potentially including Scott's call for hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts and increased education spending.

 "When you really start looking at how you do a budget, how you do all these other things that are being advocated for, when you have a $2.2 billion hole with no answer --- I'm not sure how responsible that is," Gardiner said.

 Gardiner also wrote a letter Thursday to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, calling for the two chambers to hold a special session beginning June 1 to resolve the budget impasse. The Senate president held out hope that federal officials might get back to the state on how much it can expect to receive in LIP funding.

 "Beginning our special session on June 1 will provide additional time to receive a response from the federal government, and we can conclude with ample time for Governor Scott to review the budget prior to June 30," Gardiner said.

 Gardiner's proposed outline for the special session would limit lawmakers' agenda to the budget and a handful of closely related bills.

 Other lawmakers weren't ready to give up on the regular session. After learning that Gardiner didn't intend to act on the Senate's contention that the House violated the Florida Constitution when Crisafulli decided to adjourn Tuesday --- more than three days early --- Senate Democrats filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court asking justices to order the House back into session.

 The lawsuit draws on a part of the Constitution that reads: "Neither house shall adjourn for more than seventy-two consecutive hours except pursuant to concurrent resolution." The Senate did not agree to the House's adjournment Tuesday.

 "We have a state Constitution for a reason," said Senate Minority Leader Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa Democrat who is an attorney. "To walk away without asking the Florida Supreme Court to decide whether the Florida House of Representatives violated its constitutional obligations would be tantamount to declaring a free-for-all, that anything goes and it's OK with us. Well, it's not OK with us."

 At least one House Republican who is a lawyer said the upper chamber's Democrats were out of line.

 "Individual senators have no standing and cannot act on behalf of the Senate in litigation," said Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, in a post on Twitter.

 But the Supreme Court ordered the House to respond to the lawsuit by 10 a.m. Friday and said Democrats would then have the option to respond by 12:30 p.m. -- a little more than 71 hours after the House adjourned.