Florida unemployment proposals would cut benefits

By Michael C. Bender, Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau

February 11, 2011, Tallahassee – Unemployed Floridians would work harder to earn fewer state benefits under a pair of proposals on the fast track in the Florida Legislature.

On Thursday, a divided House committee approved a bill from Republican leaders that would:

• Make it easier to fire employees.

• Put more burden on workers to prove they deserve benefits if employers appeal.

• Reduce weekly unemployment checks from the state from 26 weeks to as few as 12.

“This bill … helps ease the burden on businesses so they can start hiring again,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota.

The House Economic Development and Tourism subcommittee passed the bill 7-4 along party lines.

PCB EDTS 11-01 has two more committee stops but could be ready for a vote on the House floor when the annual spring lawmaking session starts March 8.

The Senate plan is similar to the House bill but includes a slight increase in the base unemployment tax rate on businesses. SB 728 is scheduled for its first vote later this month.

Unemployment benefits in Florida are paid from business taxes. The state fund, however, was wiped out in August 2009 by the historic unemployment crisis.

Lawmakers attempted to save the fund in 2009 when they increased business taxes to pay for it. But the Legislature undid those changes in its first bill of 2010.

Instead, lawmakers have taken on $2 billion in federal loans plus more than $200 million in interest.

President Barack Obama is pushing to let Florida delay about $500 million in payments for the next two years. But Gov. Rick Scott wants lawmakers to cover the federal debt obligations while cutting unemployment taxes for businesses by $630 million over two years.

Scott’s plan would also reduce state benefits to 20 weeks from 26 weeks. His plan, as well as the House and Senate bills, would limit unemployment checks to 12 weeks if the unemployment rate reaches or falls below 5 percent. It’s now at 12 percent in Florida.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, said he would consider Obama’s plan.

“Interest payments cripple families, cripple this state,” Haridopolos said. “We need to find a long-term solution.”

In the House committee on Thursday, nearly a dozen out-of-work residents pleaded not to reduce their benefits. The maximum benefit is $275 per week, among the lowest in the country.

But the Republican majority sided with business lobbyists who said lower taxes would make it easier to hire new workers.

“The whole system needs to be reformed,” said Senate Commerce and Tourism Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice. “And that is going to be a huge lift.”

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com.