Florida's economy is in dire straits, and the state's unemployment rate is at 8.6 percent and climbing. Yet the Republican-controlled Florida Legislature may leave behind more than $1 billion in federal help to extend unemployment benefits because the state would have to contribute some modest money. This is incredibly shortsighted, and it needlessly makes life more difficult for jobless Floridians who could use a little more help.
Gov. Charlie Crist has promised to use every bit of the federal stimulus money to help Floridians. He should take charge and persuade his fellow Republicans to pass the legislation needed to bring the federal unemployment money that this state desperately needs.
After the February numbers come out, it is almost certain that Florida's unemployment rate will qualify it for $776 million in federal aid to extend jobless benefits another 20 weeks. The extra help would go to approximately 250,000 Floridians whose unemployment compensation is running out. For these families, this could be the difference between keeping or losing a home.
But top House Republicans, apparently with the backing of callous business groups such as Associated Industries, are planning to reject the money. They argue that once the federal benefits extension money expires at the end of 2009, Florida would be on the hook over the long term for the cost of the added benefits. Those concerns can be addressed. According to Rick McHugh, staff attorney at nonprofit National Employment Law Project, lawmakers can pass legislation that qualifies the state for the extended benefits while including a well-timed sunset provision.
Another objection is that the 20-week extension would cost state agencies and local governments $71 million, because they are responsible for 6 percent of the benefits for employees they lay off. It's true that laid-off state and local government workers who exhaust their regular unemployment compensation and qualify for the extended benefits would cost government entities that 6 percent. But it makes no economic sense to take a pass on three quarters of a billion dollars in federal stimulus money that would help tens of thousands of Floridians because of a potential $71 million expense.
Every dollar in unemployment benefits puts $2.15 into the economy. This would help, not hurt, the state's business community and employers — and by extension the coffers of state and local government.
Just as indefensible is the House's intention to leave an additional $444 million in federal unemployment money on the table — for a total of more than $1.2 billion — because to qualify the Legislature would have to slightly expand the pool of beneficiaries.
To receive these hundreds of millions of dollars, lawmakers would have to tweak the formula for calculating an applicant's past income and work experience. Florida also would have to adopt two of the following three policies: Grant additional weeks of benefits when a recipient is in an approved job training program, offer slightly higher benefits for larger families, or grant benefits in certain cases when a person quits their job out of necessity, such as caring for a sick child, accompanying a spouse on a move, or due to domestic violence. None of those options are unreasonable.
House Majority Leader Adam Hasner, R-Delray Beach, illogically claims that accepting the federal money could make a bad situation worse. In fact, he and other House Republicans are being fiscally irresponsible and remarkably insensitive to Floridians struggling to survive. They are shortchanging the unemployed, foolishly rejecting federal help and digging the state's economic hole deeper. The governor has visited a number of unemployment lines and talks of looking at the faces of those who are searching for work. How would he explain to those Floridians that the state doesn't want more than $1 billion in federal money that would help ease their pain?