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Jobless benefits change up in air

The state House is scheduled to vote today on a compromise between labor leaders and businesses that would cut unemployment taxes while boosting benefits to workers.

But Thursday, the measure's fate became uncertain when state senators broke from the House agreement. They voted against some of the extra benefits that would have gone to the unemployed.

"We are disappointed," said Marilyn Lenard, president of the Florida AFL-CIO. "All the business organizations had agreed to that."

Both the House and Senate proposals would cut for one year the unemployment taxes Florida businesses pay while permanently raising the cap on payments to laid-off workers.

But the House version goes a step further: For one year, it would give unemployed people an extra $25 bonus on their first benefits check.

"I'm happy with the (House) bill," said Rep. Bob Starks, R-Casselberry, chairman of the House Finance & Taxation Committee. "As far as I know everyone is happy with it, except maybe people in the Senate."

Business lobbyists said they did not push the Senate to change, but were pleased with the result. "We're happy," said Kevin Neal, a lobbyist for Associated Industries of Florida. "We just want the bill to pass."

Both House and Senate proposals have the same goal: putting the bulging, $1.9-billion unemployment compensation trust fund to good use. It is a plan conceived first by Jeb Bush, the unofficial 1998 GOP gubernatorial candidate, and supported by Gov. Lawton Chiles.

Both proposals would cut business taxes by up to $158-million for one year and increase annual benefits payments permanently by at least $23.1-million.

They would raise the weekly benefits cap from $250 to $275 beginning July 1. Workers who have been laid off for legitimate business reasons are eligible to receive benefits.

Supporters of the increased benefits pending in the House had hoped the Senate would follow suit.

After two hours of debate Thursday, the Ways and Means Committee (made up of the Senate minus President Toni Jennings) did not buy it.

"Senators, if you want to just keep giving it away, then vote for this," said Sen. John McKay, R-Bradenton. "We had a bill that was a win-win, but folks are saying, "We want a little bit more and a little bit more and a little bit more.' We're going to take a fiscally responsible bill and make it fiscally irresponsible."

Ways and Means Chairman Donald Sullivan, a Seminole Republican, threatened to push the measure back to a lower committee for more work if the panel approved the $25 bonus. House staff estimates have said the bonus would cost $6.8-million, but Sullivan said it would cost a lot more.

Sen. Charles Williams, D-Live Oak, suggested the bonus would act as an incentive for people to join the unemployment rolls. His comments brought a sharp rebuttal.

"Come on. Let's have a little respect for the people and the state," said Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton. "There are times people have to go on unemployment."

Just three senators voted for the bonus: Klein, Howard Forman, D-Pembroke Pines, and Ken Jenne, D-Fort Lauderdale.

Their losing fight took place moments after labor advocates won a narrow victory for a provision that moved the starting date for increased benefits payments from January 1, 1998, to July 1 this year.

It passed 18-14, but not before an emotional debate. Opponents said increasing the benefits July 1 _ but waiting until January to begin the tax cuts _ was unfair to businesses.

"I understand we all like to be Santa Claus," McKay said. "But it's not fair."

But Sen. Jim Hargrett, D-Tampa, disagreed: "This money is paid to the state for a purpose. And it's paid to help workers put bread on the table when they're out of work."