Senate budget chief: ‘A' grade on budget talks

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers haggling over the House and Senate state spending plans have a little extra time before the chambers’ budget chiefs step in to try to resolve the differences, Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley told reporters Thursday evening.

Bradley said he and House counterpart Travis Cummings -- Republicans who are both from Fleming Island -- are giving budget conferees until Friday morning to try to hammer out disparities in various areas in next year’s state budget, which totals about $90 billion.

Overall, Bradley said he is pleased with how the talks were going thus far.

"I would give negotiations an ‘A’ grade. We kept on schedule. We are right where we need to be,” Bradley said, adding “things are closing out.”

The budget conferees initially were given until Thursday evening to “bump” any unresolved issues to the two Republican leaders.

“A lot of great progress is being made,” Bradley said. “So we are talking about letting the budget stay with the (conferees) a little longer. They’ve been doing great work.”

The 2019 legislative session is slated to end May 3. While legislators will consider hundreds of bills, the state Constitution only requires them to pass one thing --- the state budget.

The House and Senate earlier this month each passed their own versions of the state spending plans. Now, negotiators are wrangling over the differences. Due to a 72-hour “cooling off” period before a final vote on the budget can be taken, lawmakers have to finalize an agreement by Tuesday to conclude the session on time.

House and Senate budget writers have agreed to spend $3.8 million on a plane for Gov. Ron DeSantis, Bradley confirmed Thursday evening. But it remains unclear whether that amount will go to lease or purchase an airplane.

“I don’t know what the final mechanism will be, but we have the same number and the governor’s office is comfortable with that,” Bradley said.

Former Gov. Rick Scott sold the state plane after taking office in 2010, using his own personal jet for state-related travel.

But lawmakers began considering a plane for DeSantis after the aircraft provided by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement experienced mechanical issues earlier this year. Since then, the Republican Party of Florida has helped cover some of the governor's travel costs across the state. 

One of the largest spending areas in the budget is health and human services. The Legislature has targeted $10 billion in general revenue funds for health-related programs in various state agencies. When combined with matching Medicaid funds and other trust fund dollars, spending across the state’s five health care-related agencies will total more than $37 billion.

Hospital reimbursement has been a major stumbling block between the House and Senate, but the chambers made progress after the House backed off its proposal to reduce spending on hospitals by 3 percent.

In lieu of that cut, the House agreed to a Senate plan that redirects money that traditionally has been used to supplement large Medicaid providers and use it instead to increase the Medicaid base rates paid to all hospitals. The hospital-spending issue remained under discussion as budget conferees continued to meet late Thursday evening.

The budget proposals also steer money to the Department of Corrections to deal with treatment of inmates with Hepatitis C. Both the House and Senate have $34 million for that issue, but that amount could change because of a recent Florida Supreme Court order requiring the corrections department to treat all inmates infected with the highly contagious disease, including those in the early stages of the virus.

DeSantis has directed Secretary Mark Inch to explore all options available on how to address the court order, his office told the News Service of Florida earlier this week.

Lawmakers “are going to comply with court orders,” Bradley said Thursday evening.

Acknowledging that the corrections agency has “issues,” Bradley said state lawmakers stand ready to work with Inch on fixing problems that have led to numerous lawsuits against the department.

“It is a new day in terms of how the Legislature and the executive (branch) are approaching these issues. We are not going to kick the can down the road,” he said.