Florida House passes restructured unemployment compensation bill

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House of Representatives passed an unemployment compensation bill Thursday afternoon that would reduce the number of weeks recipients could receive state benefits.

The bill also would tie the number of weeks benefits are available to the unemployment rate and would require recipients to take a skills review test to determine if they need additional job training.

The bill passed 81 to 38, largely along party lines. Republicans, who have vowed to make Florida more friendly to business, hold large majorities in both the Florida House and Senate. The Senate is working on similar legislation, which is favored by Gov. Rick Scott.

Advocates of the House bill said it would create jobs by providing needed tax relief to Florida businesses.

“It takes a step in moving the state unemployment compensation system in the direction of a re-employment system,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, a real estate broker and the bill’s sponsor.

Opponents said it will hurt businesses by taking money out of the hands of the unemployed, who will spend it quickly. They also argue that Florida’s unemployment benefits are already some of the lowest in the country.

Rep. Luis Garcia, D-Miami Beach, called it the “right bill at the wrong time.”

“The fastest way to trickle down money to the economy is through unemployment benefits,” Garcia said during debate Thursday.

Because of the lengthy recession and its toll on the economy, businesses are looking at having their minimum unemployment compensation tax rate hiked from $25.20 per employee in 2010 to $72.10 in 2011. The state’s unemployment rate is hovering around 12 percent.

Florida’s unemployment compensation trust fund became insolvent in 2009, and since then the state has borrowed over $2 billion from the federal government to pay claims, according to an analysis of the bill.

The bill would reduce the maximum number of weeks that recipients could receive benefits from 26 to 20.

It would tie the number of available benefit weeks to the unemployment rate, with more weeks available as the rate increases. If Florida’s unemployment rate drops to 5 percent, the number of weeks unemployment benefits would be available would drop to 12.

The bill would reduce the maximum state benefit from $7,150 to $5,500. The maximum weekly benefit of $275 would remain the same.

“What we’re going to do is try to get people back to work,” Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, said. “That’s been our goal all along.”

The bill would also make it more difficult for people to get unemployment benefits if they were fired for committing a crime and would require recipients to take a skill review test, to be reported to the Agency for Workforce Innovation, to determine if they need additional training or job search assistance.

Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples, voted for the bill, calling it “absolutely the right thing” to do.

“When you’re borrowing as much money as we are from the federal government to prop up the program, at some point you have to make sure that you’re fiscally solvent in the long run,” he said.

Hudson disagreed with opponents of the bill who said it takes money away from the people who need it most.

“The people that need it the most in this state are the job creators that are going to put people to work and end this cycle,” Hudson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gov. Rick Scott
Home: Naples
Party: Republican
Scott, a multimillionaire former hospital executive, came out of nowhere to win election as Florida's 45th governor in November. He ran as a political outsider, and has no prior experience in electoral politics. Scott has promised to run the state more like a business, phase out the state's corporate tax, cut the state workforce, and create 700,000 new jobs over seven years.

Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll
Home: Fleming Island, Fla.
Party: Republican
An immigrant from Trinidad, veteran of the U.S. Navy, and businesswoman, Carroll became the first black woman elected to the Florida Legislature during a special election in 2003. She served three terms in the state House of Representatives before Gov. Rick Scott chose her as his running mate in September.

Attorney Gen. Pam Bondi
Home: Tampa
Party: Republican
Bondi was a prosecutor in Hillsborough County for 19 years and Fox News legal analyst before she was elected Attorney General in November. She is the lead attorney general in the lawsuit to overturn the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater
Home: North Palm Beach
Party: Republican
A former banker, Atwater was elected to the Florida House in 2000, and the Florida Senate in 2002. He served as Senate president from 2008 through 2010, and was elected CFO in November.

Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam
Home: Bartow
Party: Republican
Putnam, who comes from a family of cattle ranchers and citrus farmers, was elected to the Florida House in 1996 at age 22. He was elected to Congress five years later. During his tenure in Congress, Putnam served as chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee and as House Republican Conference Chairman. Putnam was elected agriculture commissioner in November.

Speaker of the House Dean Cannon
Home: Winter Park
Party: Republican
An attorney and former University of Florida student body president, Cannon was elected to the Florida House in 2004.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos
Home: Merritt Island
Party: Republican
A college professor who is still a guest lecturer at the University of Florida, Haridopolos was elected to the Florida House in 2000. He won a special election to the Florida Senate in 2003, and has announced his candidacy for U.S. Senate in 2012. Haridopolos was formally admonished by the Senate Rules Committee in late February for failing to properly disclose his finances.

Rep. Ron Saunders
Home: Key West
Party: Democrat
An attorney and fifth-generation Key Wester, Saunders was first elected to the Florida House in 1986, where he served through 1994. He returned to the House after winning election in 2006, and has headed the Florida House Democratic Caucus since 2009.

Sen. Nan Rich
Home: Weston
Party: Democrat
A member of the Broward County Women's Hall of Fame, Rich was elected to the Florida House in 2000 and to the Senate in 2004. She was elected minority leader in 2010. Rich has served as the national president of the National Council of Jewish Women, and as a board member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Sen. Lizbeth Benaquisto
Home: Wellington
Party: Republican
A former Wellington councilwoman and vice mayor, Benaquisto won a special election to the Florida Senate in November representing District 27, which stretches from southern Lee County to Palm Beach County. As a first-term senator, Benaquisto said the Legislature's first priority this session is aligning state spending to "the reality of today's world."

Sen. Larcenia J. Bullard
Home: Miami
Party: Democrat
Bullard's sprawling District 39 includes Monroe County, as well as portions of eastern-Collier, Hendry, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Bullard was elected to the Florida Senate in 2002 after previously serving in the Florida House.

Sen. Garrett Richter
Home: Naples
Party: Republican
President and founder of First National Bank of the Gulf Coast, Richter was elected to the Florida Senate in 2008 representing Collier and Lee counties in District 37. Fittingly, he is the chair of the Senate Banking and Insurance Committee. Richter served in the Florida House from 2006 to 2008.

Rep. Matt Caldwell
Home: Lehigh Acres
Party: Republican
Caldwell, a real estate appraiser and Florida Gulf Coast University alum, won his first election in November representing most of Lee County in District 73. He ran an unsuccessful campaign for Florida Senate in 2008.

Rep. Matt Hudson
Home: Golden Gate Estates
Party: Republican
Hudson, a Realtor and former Golden Gate fire commissioner, won a special election to the Florida House in 2007 representing District 101, which stretches across Collier and Broward counties. He is the chair of the Health Care Appropriations Subcommittee. Hudson has served on numerous Collier County advisory boards and also been active with the Rotary Club and as a youth umpire.

Rep. Jeanette Nuñez
Home: Miami
Party: Republican
Nuñez was elected in November to represent District 112, which includes portions of eastern-Collier and Miami-Dade counties, and touches a portion of south Broward County. She is vice president of external affairs at Kendall Regional Medical Center and Aventura Medical Center.

Rep. Kathleen Passidomo
Home: Naples
Party: Republican
Passidomo won her first election to the Florida House in 2010 without competition. A 30-year Naples resident, she served as the founding member of the Collier County Juvenile Justice Council and the Collier County Senior Resource Center, was a driving force behind the Collier County Foreclosure Task Force, and has been involved with dozens of other local and state organizations.

Rep. Trudi Williams
Home: Fort Myers
Party: Republican
Williams, an engineer by trade, is the CEO of the Fort Myers-based TKW Consulting Engineers, which she founded in 1989. She was appointed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to the South Florida Water Management District in 1999, and has served in the Florida House since 2004. She chairs the Agriculture & Natural Resources Appropriations Subcommittee and the Select Committee on Water Policy. In February, Williams announced her candidacy for Florida Senate in 2012.

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