(Adds close of special session, passage of budget)
By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., June 19 (Reuters) - Florida legislators wrapped up a rancorous special session on Friday with passage of a $78 billion state budget, narrowly avoiding a state government shutdown at the end of the month.
“This has been an unprecedented six months, something we haven’t seen in decades,” said state Representative Richard Corcoran, a Land O’ Lakes Republican who chairs the House budget committee.
The three-week special session ended after a 97-17 House vote on the budget.
A standoff between the Republican-controlled House and Senate over expanding Medicaid coverage to serve about 800,000 working poor Floridians caused the state’s regular 60-day session to end in disarray on April 28. Medicaid is a government health insurance program for the poor.
The Senate proposed a market-based plan for using federal money to underwrite private healthcare coverage. But the more conservative House balked at accepting anything derived from President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, a law Republicans strongly oppose.
Without a budget for the fiscal year starting July 1, lawmakers reconvened on June 1 and worked out compromises to fund a “low-income pool” of local, state and federal money to reimburse hospitals for care of the uninsured poor.
The Senate sought again to expand Medicaid eligibility, but the House held firm.
Legislators gave Governor Rick Scott a $400 million package of tax cuts, which he signed this week. A breakthrough in prolonged budget negotiations came near midnight on Monday, with the sudden emergence of $300 million in a wide range of programs and building projects - dubbed “turkeys” in the legislative process - to smooth ruffled feathers.
Democrats objected not only to rejection of federal Medicaid money, but also to what they called a short-changing of environmental protection spending.
Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a state constitutional amendment last fall requiring one-third of state real estate development taxes to be spent on land acquisition and water protection, but Republican legislative leaders spread the money among a wide range of programs that they said met the conservation criteria.
Scott, a conservative Republican, can use his line-item veto to cull parts of the budget before signing it next week.
When the Legislature adjourned three days early in late April, unable to pass a budget, Scott had ordered state agencies to draw up contingency lists of essential functions like prison operations and child protective services that would have to be maintained if a budget were not passed by July 1 and state agencies were forced to shutter.
Editing by David Adams and Will Dunham