TALLAHASSEE — Florida rejected $444 million in federal stimulus money Wednesday after House Republicans said the unemployment aid would hurt businesses and create new entitlements.
"Once government provides that handout, it never takes it back," said Majority Leader Adam Hasner of Delray Beach.
The proposal, already turned down by the Senate, would have, among other things, extended benefits to some part-time workers and to people who quit their jobs out of necessity, such as spousal relocation or domestic violence.
Democrats assailed the move as callous when the state's unemployment rate is at a 30-year high. About 40,000 people would have been eligible under the new rules.
"We are playing politics with the pocketbooks of the people we represent back home," said Rep. Adam Fetterman of Port St. Lucie, which has seen some of the worst job losses.
"I'm just shocked. Shocked," said Rep. Scott Randolph of Orlando.
The House did unanimously vote to accept nearly $2 billion in federal stimulus to extend by up to 20 weeks the length of time that unemployed workers receive assistance. The weekly benefit will also increase by $25 per week.
But a Democratic amendment to accept the $444 million gave way to a long, bitter debate. By offering the amendment in the face of well-known GOP opposition, Democrats were attempting to paint their counterparts as unfriendly to average Floridians.
They noted that Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska this week backed off threats to reject the money. Florida Gov. Charlie Crist has said he supports taking the money.
House Republicans, however, portrayed themselves as champions of small business. "If we keep making it harder to hire and more expensive to hire, they won't hire," said Rep. Tom Grady of Naples.
The lawmakers suggested it would be "fraud" to change the eligibility rules in a few years when the economy improves and said the money would cover only two months of unemployment and sap the state's unemployment trust fund, which is already likely to be drained this summer.
"It's easy to demagogue and make us seem cold-hearted," said Hasner, who bristled at his party being labeled "robots."
"But," he added, "it's contrary to the facts."
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