Wednesday's House Meltdown Clouds Attempts At Cordial End To Session

May 2, 2013

Tempers were short. Emotions were high. Lawmakers were tired. A bad combination for a 96-page bill that included a strike-all amendment in it delivering Governor Rick Scott’s top priority: a sales tax exemption for manufacturers. The result: a testy exchange between Democrat Representative Jim Waldman and Republican Representative Carlos TrujiIlo:

“We invoked a constitutional privilege that’s there for both sides. It’s there to protect against what you are trying to do. It’s outrageous, improper, and in my opinion, boarders on unethical," Waldman said

"Just like you have the right to invoke the constitutional rules you see fit to stall democracy, we have the right to invoke the rules to promote it. For you to accuse the Speaker of being unethical, it’s unbecoming of a person elected to a position such as yourself," said Trujillo.

For two days, House Democrats were able to slow down the process by demanding every bill be read aloud in their entirety. Democrats were protesting the House Republican majority’s refusal to accept $51 billion in federal Medicaid money to help a million more low-income Floridians purchase private health insurance. The slow-down lasted until about 7 p.m. Wednesday, when the bill carrying the manufacturing tax cut came back to the House.

“I understand that a deal has gone down. That I get. I’ve been in this process 19 years. Not explaining in-depth, not taking questions...at least questions, I’ve got great concerns that the people of the state of Florida will not know what the impact is on them," said Republican Representative Mike Fasano.

Fasano complained of not being able to hear or read the bill before voting on it because debate was cut short. Democrats shared his sentiment. Despite objections, House Speaker Will Weatherford called the vote and the measure was approved 68-48.

Four Republicans joined with Democrats in voting against the manufacturing tax exemption. But that vote has now set off a larger protest: was it even Constitutional? Democrats say the bill needed two-thirds support to pass because it impacts local communities, but House Speaker Will Weatherford is defending the vote:

"We looked into that very closely we spoke with our attorneys and our staff. We do not believe it requires a two-thirds vote. If you need technical data and reasons behind that we can get it to you, but it does not require a two-thirds vote," he told reporters.

The manufacturing exemption is one of Governor Rick Scott’s top priorities. Shortly after the House passed it, Scott signed the ethics reform bill and a campaign finance bill that raises campaign contribution limits. He had previously suggested a veto for that bill, leading to questions of whether he’d struck a deal with the House:

“I look at everything, but I made the right decision for all Floridians with respect to that bill," he said to reporters Thursday following a bill signing on unclaimed property.

Scott was also asked about the Constitutionality of his manufacturing tax break Thursday, which he dodged:

“I’m excited. I’m excited about jobs. If you look at this, this is a reduction in our taxes so we can get more manufacturing jobs. As I travel the state, people are excited. I’ve been traveling for the past few months just talking about this and people have come up and they’re excited because we’re going to have more jobs in the state.”   

The move by the House to approve the manufacturing tax break has Democrats threatening lawsuits.  Their two-day protest on the House majority’s rejection of a Medicaid alternative only further entrenched House Republicans and guaranteed the death of a Medicaid alternative.

Senate President Don Gaetz said, "It appears the shot clock has run out on the healthcare issue for this session.” 

That leaves a million or so Floridians who would have been eligible for Medicaid under the federal health law in limbo. Even House Speaker Will Weatherford admitted Wednesday was not the House’s finest moment:

“This day, was not our finest hour. On anyone’s side. Last night, around this time, I said we would either shrink or we would rise. There’s still an opportunity for us as a body to rise.”  

The Governor is getting his teacher pay raises and his manufacturing tax break, two of his top priorities. but he fell flat on the Medicaid expansion—and some are questioning his leadership on the issue. The fallout from Wednesday’s House session could mar what Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz had hoped would be a smooth and amicable session between their chambers, and the political parties.