Florida could soon be looking a lot like the federal government did in 2013—when it shut down due to budget conflicts. That’s a scenario state lawmakers are looking to avoid, but the state may not have a budget in place before the start of the July 1st fiscal year.
Florida’s budget conflict is about healthcare funding, and whether the federal government will renew a program valued at 2-billion dollars. The Low-Income pool shores up hospitals that treat large numbers of uninsured patients, and while the state has known for a year the program would expire: it formally requested an extension this week—setting in motion a timeline that, as Republican Senator Don Gaetz explains—blows past the state’s deadline to have a budget in place.
“Even if everything goes well, the fact that nothing has happened in a year, puts us into the next fiscal year with a budget that’s not solvent," he said yesterday.
The fiscal year begins July first—and by Gaetz’ estimate—the soonest Florida would have a response is July 4th. Legislative leaders acknowledge it’s a problem, and Governor Rick Scott has called on lawmakers to create what he calls a continuation budget. But Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee says there is no such thing.
“That’s a made-up word in the budget lexicon. There is a budget. There could be a scrubbed clean budget that starts over from scratch and works back through the process and starts from the base. But that’s essentially what I’ve already talked to them about….you pass a budget with several millions of dollars in reserves in it then you sit back and wait on the federal government.”
Lee says the rest of the budget answers may not come until late June. And that opens the door to some awkward conversations in a state that has touted its ability to have balanced budgets and big rainy day funds. Now lawmakers are facing the very real possibility that come July first—the state won’t have a budget. That would be a first.
“I don’t know of any mechanism that allows us to do that," Lee said. "But I will admit, something that’s never been done in Florida history doesn’t mean it won’t be done in this session.”
The state budget includes funding for schools, hospitals, local health clinics, transportation, social services—even federal programs are administered through it. It’s generally accepted that many of the state’s agencies and other entities could exist for a while on their reserves, but that’s not something that’s ideal—nor is it good for budgeting, says the Florida Association of School Boards’ Andrea Mescina.
“There are some funds that are carry-over in certain categories, and some school districts have a borrowing capacity greater than other school districts if they had to borrow some money. But what I’m hearing is great concern over the inability to get a decision here," she said.
And School Board Association interim director Bill Graham says if he were in the position of a local school board, there could be program cuts. and one casualty could be Summer School.
“You’re real short-term expense is Summer School, starting in June and running four, five, six weeks….because you’re funding it because the majority of your money is needed in the summer while the majority of the students are out and a good part of your workforce is off-duty.”
Florida lawmakers could also run afoul of the state constitution—the budget is the ONE bill lawmakers MUST pass each year. But more than that—they risk the public’s trust, says USF Political scientist Susan McManus.
“Public opinion polls show Floridians and Americans at large are really fed up with government that can’t get things done. And it doesn’t matter if they’re Democrats or Republicans, the public’s trust in their governing leaders is not very high and this certainly is not going to help matters," she said.
Furthermore, McManus says Republicans, who make up the majority party in the legislature, may take the brunt of blame.
“This is a bad political move and to people who look at it from the outside in, it looks like a battle of egos, rather than philosophy.”
The last time the legislature came close to blowing its budgetary deadlines was 1992.