How unemployment got lost during Florida’s legislative session

The session ended Friday without lawmakers restructuring the state’s unemployment system. In a two-month period where lawmakers did so much, how did that happen?
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla.
A small group of demonstrators gathers at Lake Eola Park to protest the Florida unemployment benefits system, Wednesday, June 10, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP ]
Published May 4, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — A year ago, Florida’s unemployment crisis was a top issue on the minds of state lawmakers.

With the state’s unemployment system inoperable, hundreds of thousands of desperate Floridians bombarded lawmakers’ phone lines begging for help filing their claims. Lawmakers from both parties pledged to reform the antiquated system.

Yet by the time they convened months later in Tallahassee for their annual legislative session this March, the unemployment crisis had been eclipsed by hot-button culture war topics such as penalizing social media companies, banning vaccine “passports,” voting reforms and “anti-riot” legislation.

The session ended Friday without lawmakers restructuring the state’s unemployment system. During the two-month-long session, they spent less time discussing it than such things like banning transgender athletes from women’s and girls’ sports — a scenario that hasn’t publicly arisen yet in Florida.

“It’s a slap in the face,” Sen. Jason Pizzo, D-Miami, said of the Legislature’s lack of attention on the unemployment issue. “It’s indecent.”

Although the Florida Senate unanimously passed a bill raising weekly unemployment benefits by $100, to $375, along with a series of other changes, House Speaker Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, refused to give it a hearing in his chamber.

“It’s probably my fault,” Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, said last week. “I really liked the bill. I’m committed to it. It’s the right thing to do.”

Next year, he’d probably start “a little earlier” on it, he said. This year’s bill, Senate Bill 1906, wasn’t heard until nearly halfway through the legislative session.

By that time, the Senate had already passed an unemployment bill favored by business groups, which helped them avoid paying a collective $1 billion annually into the state’s unemployment trust fund. Senate Bill 50 makes Floridians replenish the fund with the sales taxes they pay on online purchases from out-of-state retailers.

Senate Bill 1906 was also never evaluated by state economists — a critical step for any proposal by lawmakers that would have a fiscal impact on state revenue or state trust funds. Lawmakers will often refuse to act on a bill if its impact hasn’t been evaluated.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Sanford, said state economists never finished their evaluation because the bill “didn’t seem to be getting any traction in the House.”

Both Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sprowls were against increasing unemployment benefits, creating a formidable barrier in Florida’s Republican-controlled Legislature. They implied that increasing benefits would keep people from returning to work, although Floridians on unemployment are not currently required to be looking for work to receive benefits.

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The inaction this year, Democrats said, was why they called for a special legislative session last year to deal with the unemployment crisis.

“I knew the urgency would no longer be there,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando. “They would be able to write it off and focus on something else.”

The Legislature did pass House Bill 1463, which lays the groundwork for modernizing the state’s unemployment website, known as CONNECT.

“We fixed the unemployment system, which is what we had to do first,” said Rep. Chip LaMarca, R-Lighthouse Point, the House sponsor of that bill. LaMarca wrote an op-ed last year saying lawmakers should increase benefits.

The House did have a chance to increase unemployment benefits by $100, when Eskamani filed an amendment to that bill on the House floor. Republicans, including LaMarca, voted it down. LaMarca said Monday that amending that bill on the House floor to increase benefits was, procedure-wise, improper and he knew it wouldn’t pass.

Instead, the House should have taken up the Senate’s unemployment bill.

“We could, and should have, taken that up,” he said.

Fixing the website, which is years away, is not enough, said Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, D-Orlando. The state’s unemployment benefits haven’t been increased since 1998, and they amount to $6.87 per hour, well below the state’s minimum wage, which will be $10 in September.

“Had we spent half as much time trying to fix unemployment and expand benefits ... as we spent on trying to expel and humiliate transgender youth from athletic programs, Floridians would have been a lot better off,” Smith said.

When Florida’s chief inspector general, Melinda Miguel, released her investigation into what went wrong with the unemployment system, a House committee gave lawmakers just 15 minutes to ask her questions.

That same day, the House devoted nearly five hours to two highly contentious bills: “anti-riot” legislation desired by DeSantis and a bill that would shield businesses from COVID-19-related lawsuits.

In the Senate, Miguel never appeared before a committee.

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