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Lawmakers cast and accept blame for failure to boost Florida unemployment benefits

Florida Legislature
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby speaks during Opening Day at the Capitol Tuesday,March 2, 2021 in Tallahassee, Fla. (AP Photo/Phil Sears) Phil Sears/AP

Lawmakers cast and accept blame for failure to boost Florida unemployment benefits

May 06, 11:00 AM May 06, 11:00 AM

After the state’s unemployment system collapsed leaving hundreds of thousands of suddenly jobless Floridians waiting weeks to receive benefit payments, lawmakers from both parties called for a special session last spring to address the “unemployment fiasco.”

There was bipartisan urgency and consensus the system needed to be upgraded – as did the state’s $275 weekly unemployment payout and 12-week eligibility span, both the most meager in the nation.

But Gov. Ron DeSantis and GOP statehouse leaders nixed the special session and, by the time lawmakers convened their 2021 session in March, restructuring unemployment faded as a priority against a backdrop of initiatives, such as an anti-riot bill and measures penalizing social media companies, banning vaccine passports and transgender athletes from girls sports, and imposing restrictions on vote-by-mail rules.

Nevertheless, the Senate unanimously adopted Senate Bill 1906, sponsored by Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, to increase the weekly benefit to $375 and extend the number of eligibility weeks to 14 and as much as 25 weeks if the state’s unemployment rate hits 10.5 percent.

But SB 1906 never had a chance after DeSantis said he opposes raising unemployment compensation and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, refused to give it a hearing.

The House subsequently shot down two amendments to its unemployment measure, House Bill 1463, to incorporate SB 1906’s $100 weekly increase and eligibility expansion.

HB 1463 revamps the Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) and allocates $56 million to upgrade DEO’s CONNECT unemployment website, but does not change benefit payouts or eligibility spans.

Brodeur said last week that SB 1906 never underwent a fiscal analysis by state economists. Many lawmakers won’t act on a bill without one so, he said, it was no surprise it “didn’t seem to be getting any traction in the House.”

Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, accepted responsibility for SB 1906’s failure. “It’s probably my fault,” he said Friday. “I really liked the bill. I’m committed to it. It’s the right thing to do.”

Simpson wants to see a similar bill proposed in 2022, promising he’ll start “a little earlier” on it.

Democrats said SB 1906 failed because DeSantis is running for president — he announced his opposition to increasing unemployment payments before a national television audience.

Case in point, they note, is HB 1463 sponsor, Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, wrote an April 2020 op-ed calling on lawmakers to increase benefits.

“It is time we increase the amount of weekly benefits available for everyone,” he wrote. “We must also extend how long Floridians can collect unemployment benefits, not just how much. As we have seen during the past five months, tough economic times can last much longer than 12 weeks.”

LaMarca said Monday the House should have heard SB 1906. “We could, and should have, taken that up,” he said, but noted amending HB 1463 on House floor to including the proposed benefit increases was improper procedure.

The measure’s failure was not procedural but political, Democrats said.

“I knew the urgency would no longer be there,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, during a Monday conference. “They would be able to write it off and focus on something else.”

Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, told reporters Tuesday that DeSantis “pushes laws and things that have nothing to do with the real urgent matters that people are dealing with every single day right now.”

The governor and GOP leaders refused to address the unemployment fiasco last spring when it was a crisis, she said.

“We called for a special session to deal with the crisis. And instead, we’re told ‘no,’” Taddeo said. “But now, we’ll be back in two weeks to deal with gambling.”

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