TALLAHASSEE --- House and Senate budget committees on Wednesday approved spending bills that are only $100 million apart in the overall totals, signaling that negotiations on the annual state budget may not be as contentious this year.
“I think we’re in great shape,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said after his committee unanimously passed the $87.3 billion Senate budget bill (SB 2500). “The overall numbers are very similar.”
The House Appropriations Committee in a 17-8 vote approved an $87.2 billion spending plan (HB 5001) for the 2018-2019 fiscal year, which begins July 1.
House Appropriations Chairman Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said although the bill is substantially larger than the current budget of less than $84 billion, much of the increase was driven by state spending on hurricane recovery, funding for approximately 30,000 new public-school students and increases in Floridians using Medicaid, the state-federal health care program for the poor and disabled.
“I think it’s a healthy growth that meets the needs of our citizens,” Trujillo said.
The bills now go to the full House and Senate for approval. House and Senate leaders then will be poised to negotiate a final spending plan.
While the overall numbers in their proposals are similar, the House and Senate have major differences in several key policy areas.
Bradley said the Senate bill has more funding in higher education, which has been a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart. Meanwhile, the House has more money in the new “schools for hope” program, which could expand the use of charter schools, and other school-choice programs, a priority for House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.
“I think that there is room for the two sides to come together on their respective priorities,” Bradley said. “I feel very good about where we are.”
The higher-education differences were underscored Wednesday when the House committee voted to transfer $121 million to the state college system from university programs targeted at hiring more top-level professors and providing awards to top-performing graduate schools, which were programs initiated by Negron. The move came on top of a budget proposal that already cut more than $200 million in operational funds for the universities.
Trujillo said while state colleges have faced recent cuts, the universities’ budget “has grown probably a little bit more than it should have.”
“I think we’re just trying to re-shift our focus going into conference (negotiations with the Senate),” he said.
The budgets are relatively close in public school funding, with the House supporting a $100 per-student increase in spending, while the Senate bill has a $110 increase.
However, the two chambers differ on school construction and maintenance money, with the House backing $120 million for charter schools and the Senate at $25 million. The Senate would provide $75 million for public school maintenance, while the House has $50 million.
The House and Senate are also close on the total amount of spending on health care and social services, each earmarking more than $37 billion.
But the chambers have some significant differences, including changes to how the state pays hospitals for providing care to poor, elderly and disabled people who rely on Medicaid.
Senate Health & Human Services Appropriations Chairwoman Anitere Flores, R-Miami, has proposed redirecting $318 million in payments that currently go to 28 hospitals with large amounts of Medicaid patients and using the money to increase the base rate paid to all hospitals.
Tony Carvalho, president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said hospitals on average are reimbursed 60 cents for every dollar they spend treating Medicaid patients. Last year, hospitals lost $1.6 billion treating Medicaid patients, an amount that exceeded the $1.5 billion in charity care the facilities provided, he said.
“I think we are at the precipice of a crisis on hospital funding in Medicaid,” Carvalho said, adding that hospitals have a limited ability to cost shift the losses to commercial insurers or others to try to make up for the shortfall.
He said three hospitals, UF Health Shands in Gainesville, Jackson Memorial in Miami and Tampa General, would take a $100 million hit under the Senate plan while the for-profit hospital company HCA would experience a windfall.
But the Senate panel questioned whether the hospitals were really losing money. Sen. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, asked Carvalho about the hospitals’ profits, something Carvalho couldn’t answer.
Bradley asked Carvalho to produce the revenue and expenditures at the facilities for the past five years, after Carvalho said the hospitals employ tens of thousands of people and inferred jobs could be at risk if the Senate plan passed.
"I think that's a fair request," Bradley said.
Another major difference in the budgets is a House plan to transfer $182 million in housing program funds for state and local governments to other areas in the budget. The Senate budget does not contain the housing fund “sweeps.”
House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said the decision was based on other priorities in the budget including funding for law enforcement and education. He predicted that some of the housing funds might be restored in the upcoming budget negotiations with the Senate.
“I would anticipate that we would do that again this year,” he told reporters.