By Steve Bousquet
Gov. Rick Scott issued dire warnings of a "government shutdown" Thursday as he ordered state agencies to draw up lists of critical services that must continue if the Florida Legislature cannot pass a budget by July 1.
Scott put agency heads on notice, giving them until 5 p.m. next Monday to identify services that must continue when the fiscal year ends at midnight June 30 and, in the absence of a budget, agencies could not spend money and state employees would not be paid.
In letters to agencies, Scott laid the blame for a potential shutdown on the Senate, which has insisted on a modified Medicaid expansion and state support to hospitals facing the loss of federal money to care for the poor as pre-conditions to budget talks. Scott on Thursday called both health care issues "controversial and divisive."
"It is possible that Florida Senate President Andy Gardiner and the Florida Senate will not agree to any budget without the specific expansion of Medicaid (at a cost to state taxpayers of $5 billion over 10 years)," Scott wrote. "Therefore, we are requesting your agency prepare a list of critical state services our citizens cannot lose in the event Florida is forced into a government shutdown on July 1st."
State agencies are under pressure to act fast. "We're working on it," said prison spokesman McKinley Lewis.
Scott's order puts agencies in the unwelcome position of deciding which services are critical and which are not.
For example, are state parks a critical service?
Probably not based on past state priorities, and they would likely be barricaded with no budget.
But what about restaurant safety inspections? Auto tag renewals? Road and bridge repairs?
By sounding the alarm of a shutdown, Scott may be trying to rally Floridians to support the view he shares with the House that a debate on health care must take a back seat to a more urgent matter of passing a budget.
But Scott could also be seen as calling out his fellow Republicans for behaving irresponsibly. Talk of a shutdown could heighten a public sense of dysfunction in a state government controlled by Republicans at all levels.
Scott's hardball tactics Thursday cost him support from one of his few staunch Senate supporters, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
"I have great respect and admiration for the governor," Latvala said. "But I think it's unfortunate that they're taking this approach in trying to solve the situation between the House and Senate. Raising the specter of a government shutdown is not necessary at this point, and it's meant to put political pressure on the Senate... It's hard for him to be a broker for a solution when he takes one side like this."
The breakdown between the House and Senate is the worst in Tallahassee in more than two decades. It led to a premature adjournment by the House on April 28, followed by a lawsuit by Senate Democrats and a decision by the Florida Supreme Court that the House action was unconstitutional.
In the past two weeks, legislative leaders have agreed to a special session starting June 1. Senate and House budget chiefs struck a hopeful tone and reported progress after daylong negotiations Wednesday, but Scott says he may issue his own order as early as Monday setting the terms for a special session.
Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, issued a statement through a spokeswoman Thursday saying he's "committed to passing a balanced budget by June 30." In a not-so-subtle reminder to Scott, his statement also noted that the Legislature develops the budget, not the governor.
The last time Florida flirted with disaster by failing to pass a budget was in 1992, when Democrats ran state government.
As lawmakers feuded with each other and with then Gov. Lawton Chiles, the governor ordered a contingency plan, much like Scott's order, to keep critical services going after July 1 with no budget and no way to pay state employees.
The state considered closing lottery terminals, horse and dog tracks and pondered leaving drawbridges open so boat traffic could get through.
It became a public relations debacle when the state grouped workers into two categories, essential and nonessential.
In the current stalemate, Scott has called for a "continuation budget," a term not used in Florida before that has sowed confusion among Florida policy makers with decades of experience.
A continuation budget is common in Louisiana, where Scott's top advisor, chief of staff Melissa Sellers, worked before coming to Florida.
Scott's budget director, Cynthia Kelly, has identified 13 statewide critical service needs that should be included in the next budget. They include covering operating deficits in the prison system and three other state agencies; paying for about 15,000 more students in the public school system; keeping up with the growth in Medicaid caseloads; maintaining the transportation work program; and implementing Amendment 1, a water and land protection amendment voters approved in November.
Conspicuously absent from Scott's list are the two promises he made to voters last year when he ran for re-election: another round of tax cuts, including a reduction in taxes on cell phones and satellite TV, and increasing funding in the K-12 schools to "historic" levels.
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