Peltier column: Teachers and gamblers to dominate week in Tallahassee


— Medicaid, gambling and teacher tenure will dominate the week while lawmakers are also likely to begin budget talks to reconcile two different spending plans approved by each chamber a little over a week ago.

The prospective budgets are $2.4 billion apart. The $69.6 billion Senate plan includes nearly $1 billion in federal Medicaid revenue and another $412 million from a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The House has yet to include either revenue source in its $67.2 billion plan, but has already said the gambling revenue would be added back into its budget calculations after negotiators reached a tentative deal with the tribe that backers say will bring in close to $1.5 billion over the next five years.

On Thursday, the Senate is expected to ratify the Indian compact signed between the governor and tribe on April 7. The deal would allow blackjack and other banked card games at five of seven Seminole casinos including Immokalee for at least five years.

The plan also gives the tribe a 20-year exclusive deal to offer slot machines at all its casinos while throwing a few bones to non-Indian pari-mutuels that would be allowed to extend hours, offer no-limit poker and hold out hope for more games in the years to come.

Passage of that major piece of legislation is largely ceremonial as all parties have signed off on the deal. Not so with Medicaid, which is shaping up to be one of the session’s most contentious issues.

The Senate earlier this month approved a measure aimed at saving Medicaid money by transferring more people into managed care plans. A House committee is expected today to take up that chamber’s proposal to phase in over several years an expansion of the experiment begun under former Gov. Jeb Bush.

The Senate Medicaid proposal calls for moving nearly 250,000 Medicaid recipients in 19 counties into managed care plans. Backers say the move would save the state $28.6 million next year and close to $100 million a year down the road. About 1 million Florida Medicaid patients are now treated through HMOs.

The House Select Policy Council on Strategic & Economic Planning has been studying the issue over the past several weeks. Its plan is expected to call for an even more dramatic shift from fee for service coverage to managed care.

And not to leave out the governor out, Charlie Crist gets in the act this week on what may be the most politically dicey decision so far in his campaign for U.S. Senate. The governor has until the end of the week to decide whether he will sign or veto SB 6, a sweeping education measure sent to his desk Friday that chips away at traditional tenure protections for teachers by basing some salary provisions on student performance.

The issue pits the Florida Education Association against Republican reformers who have wanted to bring reforms to the classroom and while they’re at it loosen the grip of one of the state’s largest unions.

Crist faces a dilemma: Sign the measure and alienate himself from moderate independents and teachers in the general election or veto the proposal and face the wrath of conservative Republicans, who can hurt him in what is becoming an increasingly uphill primary fight against GOP challenger Marco Rubio, who outraised the governor three to one in the last quarter of fundraising.

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