Florida this week won approval to begin shifting low-income, long-term care residents to managed-care plans amid broader questions about whether it will go along with the federal government in expanding Medicaid.
Federal approval this week of the long-term care changes brought Republican backers a step closer to the Holy Grail -- a federal waiver allowing the state to shift virtually all Medicaid patients to HMOs or similar plans.
Meanwhile, lawmakers returned to preparation for a session that, although not scheduled to begin for more than a month, feels in full swing.
Pensions, foreclosures, and ethics reform were just some of the big issues already being tackled by lawmakers. While those issues -- along with the death penalty, search and seizure laws and juvenile justice --sparked lively debate, Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal got a yawn from many lawmakers, or polite acknowledgement, along with more than a little skepticism.
The only chillier response, perhaps, was a House committee's icy reaction to a bill repealing the state's death penalty, which was known to be dead on arrival but sparked lively debate before being shelved for at least the year.
Outside the capital, Progress Energy Florida announced it would shut down its nuclear reactor in Crystal River after a botch do-it-yourself repair project damaged critical portions of the 35-year-old plant. Environmentalists, meanwhile, filed a legal challenge to a deal giving a pair of South Florida sugar growers 30-year leases north of the Everglades
MEDICAID WAIVER APPROVED:
The week started off well for Scott and Republican leaders who have been wrangling with federal health care officials over how the state delivers medical care to low-income and nursing home residents.
Federal officials on Monday approved a key part of Florida's effort to transform its Medicaid program by allowing Medicaid-eligible seniors who need long-term care to be enrolled later this year in HMOs and another type of health plan known as a "provider service network."
The Republican-controlled Legislature approved wide-ranging bills in 2011 aimed at shifting to a statewide managed-care system in Medicaid. The plan was to make the changes in two phases -- first for seniors who need long-term care and then for the broader Medicaid population.
Backers of a statewide system argue it would help hold down Medicaid costs and better coordinate services for beneficiaries. But critics have long argued that the shift will result in managed-care plans squeezing care to save money.
Such Medicaid proposals require approval by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services before they can take effect.
Legislators on both sides of the Capitol continued a two-track debate on retirement benefits for public workers. The Senate has taken the lead on how to handle the funding of some local pensions, while the House is pushing ahead with a bill on the state retirement system -- a key priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.
In the Senate, lawmakers are working toward a consensus on giving cities more flexibility in using revenues from insurance premium taxes to fund police and firefighter pensions. But the effort is running into resistance from cities, which want to repeal any restrictions on which benefits they can pay with the tax revenue, in keeping with a new interpretation of the state law governing the funding of pensions following a dispute in Naples.
Lawmakers have signaled hesitance about that approach.
Anger on the part of employees and Democrats is more pronounced on the House bill dealing with state pensions. That bill would require workers hired on or after Jan. 1 to enroll in a 401(k)-style "defined contribution" plan instead of a traditional, "defined benefit" pension.
Supporters say moving now will allow them to avoid cutting current employees' benefits. But opponents blasted Republicans for moving forward with the bill before a study on the effects of the proposal was complete.
SCOTT'S BUDGET MAKES THE ROUNDS:
Gov. Scott's $74.2 billion spending plan made the rounds this week and one of the centerpieces of the proposal, a $2,500 across-the-board raise for Florida public school teachers, was met with polite skepticism.
"The governor's proposal seems to treat different employees differently, and we have some consternation about that as it relates to teachers being treated differently than corrections officers being treated differently than other state employees," said House budget chairman Rep. Seth McKeel R-Lakeland.
Other aspects of Scott's proposal, including sales tax cuts for manufacturers, appeared to fall on more receptive ears, but budget builders were careful not to commit too strongly to much.
FORECLOSURE BILL MOVES:
The House this week took another crack at speeding up the foreclosure process, a controversial topic in a state that leads the nation in the percentage of homeowners facing losing their homes.
Sponsored by Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, the bill (HB 87) aims to shorten the time period involved in a foreclosure proceeding and relax restrictions on who can request an expedited procedure and the standards for what can be filed.
Passidomo said the bill would help remedy a problem that extends far beyond the state and of which the state has limited authority: the relationship between lenders and those who borrow from them.
The bill would reduce from five years to one year the length of time a lender could pursue a claim after a foreclosure action and require lenders to provide more. The bankers are concerned about that.
Homeowner advocates, meanwhile, are skeptical of changes making it easier for a judge to forgo further proceedings if the paperwork is in order.
ETHICS/ELECTION BILLS INTRODUCED, ADVANCE:
Lawmakers dealt with both election and ethics issues this week as they debated measures to expand early voting, more accurately track contributions and more aggressively investigate suspected unethical behavior.
A Senate ethics bill passed the Senate Community Affairs Committee on Wednesday, apparently queued up for quick action when lawmakers return in March. The measure (SB 2) would limit the jobs elected officials could take with state agencies, give the Ethics Commission more power to collect fines and strengthen conflict-of-interest laws.
The committee approved an amendment that would bar elected officials from taking a job with a government agency if the official knows he or she is getting the job because of their elected position.
On the finance front, the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee heard testimony on a bill (HB 569) that would prevent committees of continuous existence, or CCEs, from accepting contributions after Aug. 1.
The bill, which is expected to come up for a vote in the committee on Monday, also raises individual contribution limits from $500 to $10,000. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has made getting rid of CCEs one of his main goals on ethics reform.
Early voting issues also came up with a bill (SB 80) by Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, to add more early voting days discussed in the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee. The bill is among a handful of measures in response to long voting lines in the November election.
COURT ACTIONS PENDING:
Legal challenges to a recently penned Everglades agreement and a proposed utility rate hike were filed this week.
Environmentalists called on a state administrative law judge to rescind a pair of 30-year leases awarded to Florida Crystals and A. Duda and Sons on about 14,000 acres in the Everglades Agricultural Area.
The Florida Wildlife Federation filed the challenge with the Division of Administrative Hearings, saying the long-term leases will further degrade water quality in the River of Grass.
Meanwhile, Florida's utility consumer watchdog filed a challenge with the Florida Supreme Court, arguing that a recently approved $350 million rate hike requested by Florida Power & Light is invalid.
The dispute focuses on a settlement that FPL reached in August with groups of major power users. That settlement, which did not include the Office of Public Counsel, served as the basis for the rate hike approved by regulators in December.
The Office of Public Counsel contends that such a settlement cannot move forward without its agreement.
OTHER BILLS TRAVELING:
Bills dealing with texting while driving and the use of aerial drones by law enforcement also made headway this week.
The Senate Transportation Committee amended a texting ban bill (SB 52) by Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, to allow texting while a driver is stopped at a red light or stuck in traffic. This is the fourth year Detert has sponsored a texting ban.
Bills barring the use of aerial drones by the police seemed to be on autopilot this week, with a House plan flying through its first committee without debate. The bill (HB 119) would prevent law enforcement officials from using drones without a warrant.
The measure, similar to SB 92 in the Senate which is also moving quickly -- is opposed by police and sheriffs, who say they want to make sure there are carve-outs for circumstances under which they would still be able to use drones.
STORY OF THE WEEK: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services approves a waiver allowing Florida to place Medicaid beneficiaries needing long-term care into managed care plans.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: "This bill's been around nearly as long as I've been alive.'' -- Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres, who is 31, talking about the annual fight between optometrists and ophthalmologists about the things each profession is allowed to do.