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Florida Senate approves business tax cut that shrinks unemployment benefits

TALLAHASSEE — Florida unemployment benefits would rise and fall along with the jobless rate and state businesses would get a tax break under a proposal approved Tuesday by the Florida Senate.

The bill, HB 7005, now moves back to the House, where leaders want to limit state benefits — already among the nation's lowest and most difficult to receive — to no more than 20 weeks.

The Senate plan, approved on a party-line 29-10 vote, keeps the maximum benefit at 26 weeks. But it creates a sliding scale that would cut or add a week of unemployment benefits for every half-percent the unemployment rate dropped or climbed.

Under the Senate bill, Florida's unemployment rate — 11.1 percent in March — would have to reach 12 percent to receive the full 26 weeks. Weekly benefits could drop as low as 12 weeks if the state's jobless rate were 5 percent or less.

Neither the House nor the Senate would adjust the maximum weekly unemployment payment of $275. A recent National Employment Law Project study showed that ranked 46th in the country and that few received the full amount.

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, suggested her bill was a take-it-or-leave-it offer for the House, Gov. Rick Scott and the business lobbyists, all of whom have been pushing her to cap benefits at no more than 20 weeks.

Detert said her proposal already was the "gift of the year" for Florida's business community.

"Pigs get fed, hogs get slaughtered," Detert said. "Learn to like it or get nothing."

The bill cuts by 10 percent the tax rate that businesses pay to cover the costs of unemployment benefits and makes it easier for companies to keep former workers from collecting benefits.

To qualify for benefits, workers would have to prove they were seeking jobs and complete a state-approved skills test or training program.

Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, said he still preferred the House plan but would confer with Republican leadership in his chamber.

"There is still room," said Holder, the House sponsor who, coincidentally, represents the same district Detert once did.

Holder said the two chambers should split the difference and cap maximum benefits at 23 weeks. He pointed out that if the sliding scale were in place now, the maximum benefit would be 24 weeks.

"From where we stand now, they would only be giving up one week," Holder said.

But Detert said time was running out for dealmaking. Lawmakers are scheduled to end their annual spring lawmaking session Friday.

"The wise thing to do is to take the deal," Detert said.

Democrats have been unified in their opposition against both the Senate and House plans.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said there was no reason to connect benefits to the unemployment rate.

"This bill is not good for employees," she said. "If I'm unemployed, I'm unemployed. And don't tell me because the unemployment rate is low consequently what I receive is less. That's preposterous."

But Detert said it should be easier to find a job when unemployment is low.

"It encourages people to get back into the job market," Detert said.

Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Florida Senate approves business tax cut that shrinks unemployment benefits 05/03/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 3, 2011 10:31pm]
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