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Florida legislators return for 20-day special session with a plan to end budget stalemate

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — The Florida Legislature kicked off a 20-day special session Monday, with legislative leaders sounding more open to compromise as they race against the clock to pass a new state budget.

The conciliatory tone espoused by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner was different than it was just a few weeks ago when the Republican-controlled Legislature ended its session amid finger-pointing and lawsuits.

The two Republican leaders gaveled in the session Monday and repeated promises to pass a final budget before the end of the month. State government could be forced to partially shut down without a budget.

Deep divisions between the House and Senate over health care led to the regular session's early end without a new budget, and that divide remains.

Crisafulli said the House would vote later this week on a Senate proposal to draw down billions in federal money to expand health care coverage to potentially as many as 800,000 Floridians.

But the Merritt Island Republican made clear that he and other top GOP members in the House remain opposed to the proposal that is part of President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.

Gardiner appeared to concede that the insurance plan was unlikely to be adopted this year, but he predicted it would remain an issue that legislators would need to deal with as the federal government begins to curtail supplemental money to hospitals that now treat the uninsured.

"This is just kind of the future," Gardiner said. "Whether you like Obamacare or not, it's changed the dynamics of how health care will be delivered in this country."

Gardiner and other Senate Republicans continued to insist their proposal is a "free market" and "conservative" approach because it relies on private insurance and even forces enrollees to sign a statement that points out it is not an entitlement program.

"This is not your grandfather's Medicaid expansion," said Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican before a Senate committee voted in favor of the bill (SB 2-A).

But with the prospect of Medicaid expansion for this year fading, the question remains how legislators will balance the rest of the state budget and how much state money will be available for tax cuts and for boosting money on public schools.

Senators first pushed for expansion after it became apparent that $1.3 billion now going to hospitals would expire this summer.

Federal officials told Florida that they wanted the state to consider expanding Medicaid insurance as part of the agreement to extend the hospital funds. Last month, the Obama administration offered to extend Florida's hospital funds for another two years, but at only about half the amount the state received last year.

The administration of Gov. Rick Scott maintained that there was a way to draw down the same amount of federal money this year - but that formula requires cutting the amount of money going to public hospitals.

Crisafulli said it did not appear there was support for Scott's proposals. Instead he said that the House would agree to cut back the size of its tax cut package to shift state money to hospitals. The House had initially proposed cutting taxes by nearly $700 million.

"Negotiations are all about compromise," he said.

House members reviewed the Senate proposal on Monday and criticized it for taking insurance away from nearly 6,000 of the state's sickest people in the so-called medically needy program in order to extend coverage to healthy adults. Justin Senior, the state's deputy secretary for Medicaid, also warned that the Obama administration was unlikely to approve the Senate plan because of a work requirement and premium cost sharing, which are "a lot of features that they don't like so I would not be optimistic."

Kelli Kennedy contributed to this story from Fort Lauderdale.


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