Florida Dems Filibuster to Force Medicaid Expansion Debate

Both sides of the aisle are using parliamentarian tricks to maneuver around the most controversial issue of the session, which ends Friday.
May 1, 2013

It’s been a battle of wills at the Florida State Capitol this week -- the last of the legislative session -- as House Democrats staged a parliamentarian protest against the Republican leadership that's refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

As bills were brought to the floor Tuesday and Wednesday, Democratic Minority Leader Perry Thurston pushed for each piece of legislation to be read in full. It was a blatant attempt to draw out the final few days of the session, Thurston acknowledged after Tuesday’s hearing. On Wednesday, Thurston and Rep. Jim Waldman, a Democrat, sometimes read from the state constitution to take up the full three minutes allowed for debate on every bill. In debates on issues ranging from the state’s water supply to its organ donor registry, Democratic lawmakers took every opportunity to plead for action on Medicaid.

Asked by reporters about the possibility that the stall tactic could prevent Democratic bills from being passed before the session ends, Thurston said that was a price his caucus was willing to pay.

“We could extend medical coverage to 1.2 million people. We could save 5,700 lives per year,” he said. “So the loss of legislation or perks for some of our friends, we compare that with the saving of lives. It’s a no-brainer. It’s a non-decision.”

Florida Democrats see this as their only option to force a debate on Medicaid expansion. Though the state Senate has passed and Gov. Rick Scott has endorsed a plan to use federal Medicaid dollars to pay for people to get private coverage through the upcoming online insurance marketplace created by the ACA (as Arkansas has done), House Republicans have refused to do the same. Instead, they passed Wednesday a much more limited plan that would use only state dollars and cover far fewer people.

Republicans had a trick of their own up their sleeves, too. To speed up the reading of each bill, House Speaker Will Weatherford brought an electronic auto-reader nicknamed "Mother Mary" to go through every piece of legislation faster than humanly possible -- though it still took more than 20 minutes for some of the longer bills to be read.

More than 1 million people could be covered by the privatized Medicaid expansion approved by the Senate, and as much as $50 billion in federal money could come into the state over the next decade, a legislative analysis has found. But the House GOP leadership has steadfastly insisted that the state cannot depend on the federal dollars to be there in the future. Their plan would rely on about $300 million in state dollars and cover up to 130,000 residents.

At least one House Republican -- Rep. Mike Fasano, who introduced the Senate’s Medicaid expansion plan in the House last week that was voted down -- is on the Democrats' side.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s not the first time this has happened,” Fasano told Governing in an interview. It was the fourth time he could recall the minority party using this particular parliamentarian trick in his 19 years as a legislator. “The minority party has to do what they have to do in order to get the attention of the majority party, in order to do what they think is good policy.”

Despite the demonstration, Weatherford showed no sign that House Republicans would relent on their opposition to the Medicaid expansion. Instead, he dismissed their protest as a futile effort to avoid the inevitable.

“It’s a little disappointing and frankly unbecoming of some members who want to try to slow down the process,” Weatherford said after Tuesday’s session. “The citizens of Florida sent us here to get work done … so we’re focused on that. They can’t stop the process, but they can slow it down. We’re okay with taking our time. We’re in no rush.”

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