TALLAHASSEE (AP) - Florida's jobless may soon find the going even tougher as the Florida House moves quickly toward passing a bill that would sharply reduce state unemployment benefits.
The House is set to vote Thursday on its proposal (HB 7005) that is designed to reduce unemployment compensation taxes that businesses pay, and reduces the limit on state benefits from 26 to 20 weeks. The state pays a maximum of $275 monthly in addition to federal unemployment assistance, which lasts up to 99 weeks.
"These are people who have to feed their families, clothe themselves and they are trying to not lose their homes to foreclosures," said Rep. Geraldine Thompson, an Orlando Democrat who offered an amendment aimed at getting more federal grant money.
But Republicans hold an 81-39 advantage in the Florida House and used that muscle Wednesday to reject a handful of amendments aimed at softening the blow to those jobless workers who depend solely on their unemployment checks to pay bills.
"The intent of this bill is to reduce taxes on businesses to help our businesses recover," said Rep. Doug Holder, a Sarasota Republican and real estate broker who sponsored the bill. "It's about tax relief, to save more jobs so that more people aren't added to the unemployment system."
Because of the lengthy recession and its toll on the economy, businesses are looking at having their minimum unemployment compensation tax rate being hiked from $25.20 per employee in 2010 year to $72.10 in 2011.
The Senate is working on similar legislation that is favored as well by Gov. Rick Scott.
And while it could reduce the maximum state benefit from $7,150 to $5,500, the $1,650 difference is seen as huge by those on both sides of the issue.
Holder, who is chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Subcommittee, pointed out the state has borrowed heavily from the federal government to cover its share of the unemployment benefits and now finds itself paying millions in interest, adding that the state system is broke.
The Republican-dominated House voted down several amendments before the bill was slated for debate and a final vote Thursday, which will be the third day of the 60-day legislative session.
"It is reprehensible that the Florida House of Representatives' first order of business was to cut unemployment benefits," said Jeannette Wynn, local president of the union that represents state and municipal workers.
And if Florida's unemployment rate - which is now at 12 percent - should drop to 5 percent, the limit would drop to 12 weeks. The bill also would require jobless workers to undergo a skills review to qualify for benefits. January's unemployment rate will be announced Thursday by the Agency for Workforce Innovation.
Forcing the unemployed to jump through additional bureaucratic hurdles at a time they're desperate to find a job, was difficult for Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, to accept.
"Doesn't that have a sense of real unfairness?" she asked.