TALLAHASSEE — The finish line is in sight. Florida lawmakers are poised to end their session Friday, a feat that only a few weeks ago was thought to be impossible as the chambers faced a $4 billion budget deficit and decidedly different ways to fix it.
Such widely divergent issues as pension funding, prison privatization and a host of other differences made even the most bullish pundits saying that even Las Vegas wouldn’t take odds on the session concluding within the 60-day window.
But like so many other predictions over the years, the inevitability of extra innings was reduced dramatically late last week and over the weekend as budget negotiators and their commanders hammered out compromise agreements on a number of fronts.
A major sticking point was resolved late last week, when negotiators came to terms on what the state’s pension plan changes would look like. State and local government workers in the Florida Retirement System will begin paying 3 percent of their salary into their pension plan starting July The retirement age will increase, but the popular DROP program to encourage early retirement will remain.
Gov. Rick Scott responded to the deal with a statement of support, saying the compromise does not go as far as his 5 percent employee contribution proposal but is definitely moving in the right direction. Scott’s approval ends one question mark in the battle over the budget and speculation over whether Scott would call lawmakers back if he didn’t get his way.
Lawmakers also agreed on a prison privatization plan that would allow the state to enter contracts with private companies for correctional facilities in the southern third of the state.
A major sticking point remains, however. The chambers have decidedly different proposals in place for the state’s health and human services budget, a $20 billion behemoth of state and federal efforts.
The state is pushing forward with plans to put most Medicaid recipients into managed-care programs. A pilot program concluded in a five-county area got mixed reviews from those hired to study the benefits of shifting residents from traditional Medicaid into an alphabet soup of HMOs, PPOs and other networks backers say will reduce costs.
Though they agree on the need to shift gears, the House and Senate have taken different approaches to carving up the state. The House wants to split the state into eight regions and allow for managed-care companies to vie for the state’s business. The Senate, meanwhile, has proposed setting up 19 regions around the state.
Larger managed care companies would hold the advantage in the House proposal as their deeper pockets and more expanded administrative structures would make it easier for them to handle the patient load of the larger districts. Senate backers want smaller managed care networks to be able to more effectively compete, which would be easier in smaller markets.
As of Sunday afternoon, the wheels continued to turn. A major caveat to all this is the blow-ups are common during the session’s last week as frazzled nerves, looming deadlines and the pressures from constituents and contributors combine to create a volatile fuel that needs only a spark to ignite it.
In the end, the session will conclude when it concludes. But for the next few days, at least, the possibility of shutting the doors Friday remains a distinct possibility.
Email Michael Peltier at firstname.lastname@example.org.