Fla. Senate Compromising, Softens Unemployment Change

By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida
By: David Royse, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, Feb. 22, 2011 --

A Senate effort to reduce how much the state pays in unemployment compensation softened a bit on Tuesday with a committee approving a compromise bill that’s better-liked by advocates for the jobless and also would no longer raise the maximum unemployment tax rate for some employers.

The amended bill (SB 728) approved Tuesday by the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on a 5-1 vote is easier to swallow for the unemployed, though still not universally supported.

Advocates for the jobless already liked the Senate version of the effort to reduce unemployment costs better than a bill proposed in the House, because the Senate bill doesn’t cut the number of weeks that benefits are available. The House measure (HB 7005) would cut the time the unemployed would be eligible for state assistance by six weeks.

Some in the business community were also pleased Tuesday that the committee scrapped a plan to raise the maximum unemployment compensation tax rate for some employers, which is currently 5.4 percent. Originally, Sen. Nancy Detert’s bill would have raised that to 6.4 percent for employers who tend to lay off the most workers. That was an effort to try to get employers in industries that are laying off lots of workers to pay more, in an effort to reduce the burden on those with fewer layoffs. The idea split the business lobby between those who sought that change, and those who would have seen their rates go up.

“Many members do not have a total comfort level with that and neither did I,” said Detert, R-Venice before a voice vote on an amendment removing the increase.

The measure also no longer would require a skills test as a condition of starting benefits, but still would require one as a condition of continuing those benefits.

“This is a work in progress,” said Karen Woodall, of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, who advocates for the unemployed. At least, she said, “the Senate is taking a much more responsible approach than the House.”

The lone no vote in the committee on Tuesday was from Sen . Jeremy Ring, D-Boca Raton. Democrat Bill Montford of Tallahassee voted with four Republicans in favor of the bill.

The unemployment compensation that spiked with the state’s jobless rate in the last couple years has been a major issue for employers because their tax rates have gone up to pay for the additional benefits. Now, they’re also on the hook for interest payments to Washington, because the state has had to borrow about $2 billion to pay claims since the unemployment compensation trust fund ran out of money in August, 2009. The interest alone on the debt is $61 million.

“You may have already heard from the employers in your district,” said Detert. “There’s more than a good need for unemployment compensation reform.”

But without reducing the length of compensation, lawmakers are looking mostly to prod people back to work sooner – in part by making sure they’re looking hard for a job - and to reduce claims by those who shouldn’t be collecting unemployment at all.

Detert said she’d heard that the state had sent unemployment checks to people in jail, and to people who don’t live in Florida anymore, and that people who were fired for cause were too often filing for unemployment and getting it. Advocates for the unemployed say some of those anecdotes are overstated, a difference in opinion that has been part of the debate.

Still, the bill has changes meant to weed out such fraud, if it’s there.

“We just want everybody to up their game a little bit more and for it to be more proactive and more fair,” Detert said. And as for people slacking on jobless benefits, the measure seeks to involve a more rigorous process for checking that than the current automated phone check-up, she said.

“We’re asking them to actually prove they’ve been out looking for a job,” Detert said. “Basically it changes the benefits, and gives a more level playing field between claimants and employers.”

Detert noted that the Senate is trying to reduce the burden on employers without simply absolving them of the new costs. Detert said that’s sort of the approach taken by Gov. Rick Scott, who has suggested that the $61 million in interest owed on what the state borrowed from the federal government should come out of general revenue, rather than passing it on to employers.

In a year where the state’s already facing a deficit, that would be tough, she said.

“If you want to do that, start thinking about $61 million worth of things you want to get rid of,” Detert warned her colleagues.

The measure still needs approval from the Judiciary and Budget Committees before it can go to the floor for a full Senate vote.


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