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Fla Dem chief says Scott “tone deaf” on jobless website woes

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Florida Democrats lashed out Thursday at Rick Scott over continuing problems with the state’s website for unemployment benefits, saying the governor has ducked responsibility for getting needed dollars to out-of-work Floridians.

The U.S. Labor Department interceded last weekend, ordering the state to pay benefits to anyone whose case has been under review for more than a week. But Democrats said it was a shame that it took federal action to ease problems that have occurred since the CONNECT website was launched in mid-October.

“Gov. Scott is tone deaf to the needs of Floridians,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Allison Tant in a conference call with reporters.

House Democratic Leader Perry Thurston of Fort Lauderdale said, “If these were people writing $3,000 campaign checks, I’m sure their needs would not go unmet.”

The Scott administration has blamed web designer, Deloitte Consulting LLP for most of the problems with the $63 million system. Deloitte has crafted similar systems in Massachusetts and California that were plagued by similar foul-ups and delays.

Another vendor, Capgemini, has been brought in to help resolve Florida’s problems. Last week, Florida Department of Economic Opportunity executive director Jesse Panuccio told a Senate panel that as many as 60,000 Floridians may be in the “adjudication” status now subject to the longest delays but who could now get relief following the federal action.

“We are encouraged by this progress,’ Panuccio said late Wednesday of the go-ahead for payments. “However, DEO remains committed to holding Deloitte accountable and needs the vendor to deliver the technical fixes.”


Signs emerge that logjam at unemployment site may be ending

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 by John Kennedy

The arrival in Tallahassee of a team of U.S. Labor Department officials is apparently breaking the logjam for thousands of jobless Floridians unable to get their benefits through the state’s troubled unemployment compensation website.

Labor officials have given the state permission to pay unemployment claims to anyone whose case has been under review for seven days or longer, said Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state’s Department of Employment Opportunity.

“This step should serve as a great relief for claimants who have faced hardships due to technical problems with the system,” Panuccio said. “Some claimants have suffered and DEO and USDOL are committed to helping them through all legal and available means.”

Florida U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat who pushed the Labor Department to intercede in the state’s trouble praised the federal action.

“The secretary of labor promised me that he would send his folks to Florida to fix the mess the state has made of its unemployment benefits system, and it seems he’s doing exactly that,” Nelson said.

DEO has been flooded with complaints about the CONNECT website since system for applying for benefits was launched in mid-October.  Social media is filled with posts from Floridians who say they have endured a computer hell as they try to file claims and are alternately kicked off the site or forced to wait hours on helplines.

Panuccio last week told a state Senate committee that 73 percent of claims are being paid within a week. But he acknowledged that as many as 60,000 Floridians may be in the “adjudication” status awaiting a determination of their claims.

Labor’s action should accelerate payments for many, officials said.

Testifying to the Senate panel last week, Panuccio placed blame for the $63 million website on Deloitte Consulting LLP.

The technology giant, which has had problems developing similar websites in Massachusetts and California, has been fined $15,000 daily by the state economic opportunity department since Dec. 23 for failing to deliver what the state calls a “fully functioning” system. The state also withheld a $3 million payment to the company last month.

Deloitte has responed that many of the problems are rooted in the state system – and “beyond Deloitte’s control.”

The federal attention is not the first time the U.S. Labor Department has weighed in on Florida’s handling of jobless benefits.

After a workers advocacy organization, the National Employment Law Project, filed a complaint in 2012, the federal agency slapped Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over a 2011 law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature, which requires that all benefit applications be filed online. U.S. officials said the requirement discriminates against minorities and the disabled who may have trouble accessing computers.

Federal officials are still negotiating with the state over possible remedies to the 2011 law – although some Florida Democrats in the Legislature said Wednesday that the online-only system should be revamped to help those without easy access.

The National Employment Law Project meanwhile said jobless Floridians may have lost more than $22 million in benefits during October and November because of problems with CONNECT.

While the initial problems with CONNECT mostly involved faulty PIN numbers and applicants having trouble submitting claims for specific weeks, the bulk of the hold-up now stems from cases being “adjudicated.”

Labor Dept. officials heading to Florida to probe jobless website woes

Tuesday, January 14th, 2014 by John Kennedy

U.S. Labor Department officials are sending staff to Florida this week to monitor continuing problems with the state’s CONNECT website, which has frustrated thousands of Floridians seeking to file for unemployment benefits, Sen. Bill Nelson said late Tuesday.

The federal agency has already slapped Gov. Rick Scott’s Department of Economic Opportunity over the 2011 law enacted by the Republican-led Legislature which requires that all benefit applications be filed online. Labor officials last year said the requirement discriminates against minorities and the disabled who may have trouble accessing computers.

The $63 million CONNECT website, which became the online portal for those seeking jobless benefits Oct. 15, has been problem-plagued. DEO officials blamed contractor Deloitte Consulting LLP for the problems and the company, in turn, puts much of the blame on the state.

Meanwhile, stories abound of Floridians struggling to get needed dollars for gas, rent and other necessities.

“The secretary of labor has assured me his key staff that handle unemployment insurance will be in Tallahassee by the end of the week; and, they’ll stay there until the problems are fixed,” Nelson, a Democrat, said Tuesday night.

Nelson said he spoke with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez who told him that the initial purpose of his team’s trip will be to try to find way to pay those with continuing claims now and fix problems with the Florida system later.

A workers advocacy organization, the National Employment Law Project, which filed a complaint in 2012 that led to last year’s Labor Department ruling, said jobless Floridians may have lost more than $20 million in benefits during October and November, alone.

The state is still negotiating with federal officials over a remedy to the earlier discrimination findings. The problems with CONNECT may add yet another facet to the discussions between state and federal officials, according to attorneys with Florida Legal Services, also a party to the earlier complaint.

DEO last month withheld a $3 million payment and began fining Deloitte $15,000-a-day over the site’s performance. Deloitte shot back by saying that any lingering problems are the state’s fault.

State officials announced last week that they plan to add 330 more staffers over the next three months to deal with long waits and disputed claims.

Jesse Panuccio, DEO’s executive director, has said that the new hires will cost the state less than $165,000 per week, with federal dollars available to cover the expense.

DEO officials are scheduled to provide an update on the CONNECT website Wednesday to a Senate budget panel.




Nelson again asks Labor to probe CONNECT flaws

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014 by John Kennedy

Amid continuing problems with Florida’s CONNECT website for unemployment benefits, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson renewed his call Wednesday for federal officials to investigate whether Gov. Rick Scott’s administration is doing all it can to fix the site.

Nelson in October similarly asked the U.S. Labor Department to look into flaws revealed in CONNECT’s Oct. 15 rollout. Thousands of jobless Floridians have been struggling to file benefit claims and have deluged overburdened help lines.

“Specifically, I ask that you investigate whether the Department of Economic Opportunity is currently in compliance with section 303(a)(1) of the Social Security Act and associated Department regulations requiring states to timely pay unemployment compensation “when due,” and, if not, what actions the Department can take to ensure timely payment of claims due to Floridians,” Nelson wrote in a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.

The state’s Department of Economic Opportunity is battling with tech giant Deloitte Consulting LLC, designers of the state’s $63 million website. Each side blames the other for problems which have forced jobless Floridians to spend days trying to file benefits or repeatedly dial call centers seeking help.

State officials announced last week they plan to add 330 more staffers over the next three months to deal with long waits and disputed claims.

Jesse Panuccio, DEO’s executive director, said Tuesday that the new hires will cost the state less than $165,000-per-week, with federal dollars available to cover the expense.

Still, for the Gov. Rick Scott administration, which has ridiculed Congress and the Obama administration for overspending, the website woes are a problem. They also potentially undermine a central part of his re-election profile as the ‘let’s get to work’ governor.

U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, last fall urged the federal Labor Department to launch an investigation into CONNECT’s balky rollout.

DEO last month withheld a $3 million payment and began fining Deloitte $15,000-a-day over the site’s performance. Deloitte shot back by saying that any lingering problems are the state’s fault.

The department’s decision to throw more bodies into the mix may not prove that successful.

“I’ve had 3 different reps handle my acct in the last 2 weeks. They asked for the same information over and over again and that it would expedited to an adjudicator. Guess what, nothing has been done,” Anthony Dezenzio of Panama City wrote on a DEO Facebook site this week.

Panuccio on Tuesday continued to emphasize that the system is getting better. Since the site deputed Oct. 15, he said 1.1 million claims have been filed and more than $335 million in benefits distributed.

On Monday, he added that more than 18,000 claims were completed and $4.9 million paid to unemployed Floridians.

“Deloitte has committed to bringing additional programmers to Florida to address technical issues and is working on a plan to solve all remaining problems,” Panuccio said. “This is a step in the right direction and each day, improvements to the system continue to be made.”


State’s jobless office staffs up amid continuing problems with website

Thursday, January 2nd, 2014 by John Kennedy

Already battling with a consulting giant over a flawed website, the state’s unemployment agency is adding 330 more staffers over the next three months to deal with long waits and disputed claims.

Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Employment Opportunity, announced the extraordinary action in an email Thursday.

“We are dedicated to making sure that every claim is processed quickly and we will continue to work until every claimant is served,” Panuccio wrote.

DEO will add 100 ‘adjudicators’ this month to help resolve unemployment claims disputes, another 100 in February and 50 more in March, doubling the size of the unit. While left unsaid, the staffing-up may be a sign that the agency expects a long siege with Deloitte Consulting LLP, which designed the CONNECT website that has proved problematic.

Panuccio last month said the state would withhold a $3 million payment and fining the company $15,000-a-day over the site’s performance. Deloitte shot back by suggesting that any lingering problems may be the state’s fault.

While problems with Florida’s CONNECT site initially involved users having trouble entering PIN numbers and data for the weeks they were seeking payment, Panuccio said delays now occur chiefly when an applicant’s eligibility for benefits is questioned.

The state last month also announced it was then adding 192 temporary workers to assist with claims and has extended the hours of call centers established to assist those filing.


State withholds $3 million payment over flawed Connect site

Friday, December 20th, 2013 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott’s administration said Friday it’s withholding a $3 million payment to consulting giant Deloitte for the state’s problem-plagued Connect website, which has frustrated thousands of Floridians seeking jobless benefits.

Scott’s chief of the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity also said he is instituting a $15,000-a-day penalty against Deloitte Consulting for failing to deliver a fully functioning system.

“While Deloitte has made progress over the last few weeks and many claimants are able to process claims without incident, the bottom line is that the overall system is still not working properly,” said Jesse Panuccio, DEO’s executive director.

The $63 million website debuted Oct. 15.  Since then, more than 950,000 claims have been filed and more than $272 million has been paid to claimants, DEO said.

But frustrated users also have filled Facebook, Twitter and Scott’s email inbox with complaints about online malfunctions and help lines that leave them on hold for hours.

“Ten weeks of money that belongs to my husband being held up in lala land because no one knows what they’re doing,” Jessica Minafo Ryan said last week, in a posting on DEO’s Facebook account.

Scott in Texas pitching Sunshine State to Chinese investors

Friday, September 21st, 2012 by John Kennedy

Florida Gov. Rick Scott is spending Friday in Texas with fellow Republican Govs. Rick Perry of  Texas and Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, pitching their respective states to a host of Chinese investors.

The U.S.-China Cross Border Private Investment Summit at Cowboys Stadium is the first stop for a six-city U.S.-China Investment Week conference, which includes an event next week in Orlando. About 50 major Chinese investors are taking part in the tour, looking for investment opportunities in the U.S.

Scott is spending the day in the Dallas-area, capped by a dinner Friday night where former President George W. Bush is slated to address the gathering.

Scott’s trip coincides with new employment numbers being released by the state’s Department of Economic Opportunity. Florida’s unemployment rate stayed at 8.8 percent for the month of August, but with 28,000 new private sector jobs created, it marked the state’s best performance in 16-months.

“This increase in new jobs is proving that the decisions we’re making here in Florida are pointing our state in the right direction,” Scott said. “Employers are aware of the talented and skilled workforce we have here, and the August numbers prove that the economic climate in Florida is one that encourages job creation and economic development.”

Latest Florida economic review continues to question Scott’s turnaround claims

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The latest state assessment of Florida’s economy continues to cloud Gov. Rick Scott’s claims that his policies are leading to an eye-catching drop in unemployment.

The Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research said Tuesday that the 1.3 percent decline in the state’s jobless level between the end of 2011 and May is largely attributed to Floridians leaving the workforce.

The unemployment rate in December was 9.9 percent and in May was clocked in at 8.6 percent. But EDR found that had the same number of Floridians been seeking jobs in May, that actual unemployment level would have been 9.5 percent, a more modest reduction.

“Sixty-nine percent of the drop in the unemployment rate is due to people dropping out of the labor force,” the analysis concluded. EDR raised similar concerns last month about April’s rate, which marked a three-year low in jobless levels.

The workforce decline is occuring in most states.  But as the nation’s biggest battleground state in the presidential contest, Florida’s improving employment picture is being grabbed by both parties.

Scott says the state’s gains would be even better if the national scene improved.  President Obama, who is scheduled to campaign Thursday and Friday in Florida,  including a stop at West Palm Beach’s Century Village, also has taken credit for brightening the Sunshine State’s out-of-work numbers.

For its part, EDR’s analysis steers clear of praise. The findings show that Florida will need to gain 1 million jobs to match the state’s pre-recession employment levels. Meanwhile, only four counties have gained employment over the past four years — rural Glades, Sumter, Suwannee and Calhoun.

Scott, though, says that since he was inaugurated, the state has created 99,600 jobs through May. His campaign goal: 700,000 jobs in seven years.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Labor Department is still reviewing a complaint by Florida Legal Services and the National Employment Law Project that wholesale changes to how Florida workers file claims have denied unemployment checks to thousands of eligible Floridians.

The latest change occured July 1, when state officials rebranded Florida’s unemployment compensation system. It’s now called reemployment assistance — but critics say it’s still hard to get. 

Critics say frustration with the system  may be fueling the perception of a sharp unemployment drop.

Thousands of job-seekers are more likely abandoning their search or just leaving the state and falling out of Florida’s labor market, they said.

Scott on Fla’s economy: “Clearly, we have turned the corner”

Friday, December 16th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott said Friday that the state’s new 10 percent unemployment rate for November is a sign that “clearly, we have turned the corner.”

The rate was 0.4 percentage points lower than a revised October rate and below the 11.9 percent posted in November 2010.  In Palm Beach County, the jobless rate was 10.1 percent – slightly topping the statewide figure, but still down .2 percent from the previous month.

“That’s a real positive,” Scott said of the statewide decline.

Florida’s unemployment decline tracks what’s occuring nationally. Florida’s rate still is higher than the nation’s 8.6 percent November jobless level, which is also down .4 percent from a month earlier.

 A total of 8,500 new jobs were added in Florida last month. Scott said that brings the total net new jobs for the year to more than 120,000.


Florida draws C in national survey on job incentive dollars

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Even as Gov. Rick Scott’s administration acknowledges it needs to improve oversight of job-creation money, a national report Wednesday graded the state’s incentive programs as average in terms of tracking the dollars and creating jobs which bring decent wages.

Scott is seeking $230 million in next year’s budget for incentive dollars for his newly created Department of Economic Opportunity, more than doubling the cash available to lure businesses to relocate or expand in Florida.

But lawmakers have questioned just how well the state can vouch for the $739 million in incentives it has spread across some 1,600 contracts since 1995.

The report by Good Jobs First, Inc., a non-partisan, nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., gave Florida a C grade for its ability to follow the dollars and turn them into jobs.

 ”With unemployment still so high, taxpayers have a right to expect that economic development investments create significant numbers of quality jobs,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First. “The days of ‘no strings attached’ are largely gone, but the fine print in many states is still full of gaps and loopholes.”

 Good Jobs’ review found Nevada, North Carolina and Vermont did best in applying job standards to their major subsidy programs. The District of Columbia, Alaska and Wyoming rated worst.

Oversight and performance of Florida’s big five economic development programs placed the state eighth best on the national survey.  Although laws governing four of the five subsidy programs set some kind of wage standard, none require employers to provide health benefits to workers, analysts said. 

“This study provides a roadmap for Florida legislators and economic development officials as they attempt to require more accountability from corporations receiving job subsidies,” said Alan Stonecipher, a spokesman for the Florida Cetner for Fiscal and Economic Policy, which co-released the Florida findings.

The report is here:




Scott rolls another ’7′, unveiling job creation and economic plan

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott laid out the “job creation and economic growth agenda” he’s been hinting at lately — a wide-ranging plan aimed at repealing more than 1,000 state rules and regulations, reducing the corporate income tax, and pouring money into port and road projects to spur more jobs.

The Republican governor — who has promised to create 700,000 jobs in seven years — has conveniently settled on seven steps toward jump-starting Florida’s sputtering economy.

Scott unveiled the plan Wednesday morning at a metals and plastics plant in Orlando. With an election year coming, Scott also used the event to draw contrasts between his plan and the jobs proposal pushed by President Obama, now languishing in Congress after a negative vote Tuesday in the Senate.

“Unlike our elected leaders in Washington, D.C., I realize that it is Florida’s families and businesses, taking risks with their ideas, capital and time, that create jobs and grow an economy,” Scott said. “We will continue to attract new jobs by consistently lettting businesses know through our actions that we want Florida to be their home.”

Scott’s latest proposal builds on many of the themes he endorsed in his first-year as governor.

 After scaling back benefits for Florida’s almost 1 million unemployed — to reduce costs for businesses — Scott now wants to require job training for those drawing assistance. He also wants to double the corporate income tax exemption approved last year by the Legislature, an increase that would eliminate the levy for about 25 percent of the companies still paying.

Scott also puts more pressure on state colleges and universities to produce more graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics — which he said will help promote economic growth. He also wants the K-12 system to do its part in advancing STEM education.

“Florida will become the nation’s leader in job creation and economic growth by consistently doing the right things month after month to create the nation’s premier environment to start, relocated or expand a business,” Scott said.

Scott’s job creation efforts took a hit last month

Friday, August 19th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida Democrats teed-off on Republican Gov. Rick Scott on Friday over July unemployment numbers, which showed the state losing 22,100 jobs that month.

The statewide  jobless rate held steady at 10.7 percent in July from a month earlier. In Palm Beach County, unemployment climbed to 11.2 percent that month, up from 11 percent in June.

Jobs, meanwhile, vanished.

Scott has been boasting of the state’s job creation levels, which had climbed by 85,500 positions since he took office in January. But with July’s drop, that level is down to 64,300 jobs, according to the state’s Agency for Workforce Innovation.

 Earlier this week, he told the Orlando Sentinel editorial board that he was well on his way to making good on his campaign promise of creating 700,000 jobs in seven years — even though he also made it clear to the paper that he was casting his pledge differently than last fall. 

Last fall, Scott promised to add the 700,000 positions on top of what economists forecast as a roughly 1 million additional jobs that will come with Florida’s population growth. Now, Scott said he’s counting every job toward his goal.

But Friday, he had to get out the eraser with July’s shrinkage.

Florida Democratic Party executive director Scott Arceneaux said the decline was “another indication that Rick Scott and the Republicans care more about promoting their Tea Party agenda then creating the jobs they promised and Floridians need.”



DCF to axe 500 jobs, with three mental hospitals likely to absorb bulk of cuts

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Gov. Rick Scott unsuccessfully tried to privatize Florida’s three remaining state mental hospitals.

But Monday, those same facilities in Gainesville, Chattahoochee and Macclenny look like they’re going to absorb the brunt of some 500 layoffs planned by the Department of Children and Families to cover a $48 million agency reduction, included in the $69.7 billion budget now before Scott.

DCF Secretary David Wilkins sent a memo to the agency’s 13,000 employees Monday outlining the effort to spare “front-line” employees “who are acting as first responders for children, adults and families in need.”

“However, we have many opportunities to improve our administrative operations. By consolidating many back office services, improving automation and simplifying many of our processes,” he added.

The layoffs are expected to take place by June 30, Wilkins pointed out. That’s the end of the state budget year. (more…)

Road builders turn up pressure on Scott

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Road builders are upping the pressure on Gov. Rick Scott to veto the Legislature’s decision to pull $150 million out of the state’s transportation trust fund and scatter it across the budget, filling holes.

The Florida Transportation Builders Association delivered close to 3,600 petition signatures to Scott on Monday, urging he strike the fund shift. Builders say losing the money will hurt construction efforts and cost 8,400 jobs.

The association’s president, Bob Burleson, said in a letter to Scott the move “will only add to Florida’s strained unemployment compensation and healthcare systems.’

Joining Burleson in the pitch are six transportation building organizations, along with Associated Industries of Florida and Florida TaxWatch. The $69.7 billion budget now before Scott is almost certain the cause more layoffs in Florida economists warn,  even as the state’s April unemployment level fell to 10.8 percent, its lowest level since September 2009.

Scott, though, has voiced little support for public spending as an economic driver. “I”m focused on building private sector jobs,” Scott said last week, when he raised the possibility of vetoing millions of dollars spending on university and college construction.

At the time, Scott said he worried about deepening the state’s debt — which may help road builders seeking to erase the $150 million trust fund shift. Those dollars are generated chiefly by motorists paying gas tax.

State budget awaiting Scott’s sig to cause pain before any gain, economists say

Sunday, May 22nd, 2011 by John Kennedy

The $69.7 billion state budget now before Gov. Rick Scott will send tremors through Florida’s struggling economy, with school districts, hospitals and other big employers soon cutting jobs and programs because of a sharp drop in taxpayer dollars, economists say.

Scott has generally praised the spending plan for shrinking government, cutting regulations and reducing taxes. He says it will spur private business expansion and fulfill his campaign pledge to create 700,000 jobs over seven years.

Many analysts aren’t so sure.

More certain, they say, is that state government’s pullback will lead to at least a short-term reduction in dollars coursing through Florida. It could add to the state’s 10.8 percent unemployment rate, they warn.

“A reduction in state spending? Well, first, that’s just going to reduce jobs,” said David Denslow, head of the University of Florida’s Bureau of Economic and Demographic Research.

“It’s going to be another headwind in the economic recovery,” said Denslow, an occasional adviser to the Republican-led legislature. “You’re cutting employment, reducing infrastructure spending and lowering the amount of money going to communities. That’s going to have a negative effect.”

Scott: New jobless numbers shows Florida on the path to recovery

Friday, May 20th, 2011 by John Kennedy

When Florida’s unemployment rate dropped in March by its largest margin in eight years, Gov. Rick Scott was quick to grab credit.

Another decline for April — announced Friday — prompted the Republican governor assuring that the state is headed in the right direction. And his policies are helping, Scott added.

“I remain focused on job creation, so it is great news that this trend is continuing in the right direction,” Scott said. “With tax relief for property owners and elimination of taxes on about half of the businesses that currently pay, I believe we are on the path to getting Florida back to work.”

Florida’s 10.8 percent jobless rate is the state’s lowest level since September 2009. It’s down from 11.1 percent in March and includes 996,000 out-of-work, the first time the ranks of the state’s unemployed dropped below 1 million since October 2009, according to Florida’s Agency for Workforce Innovation.

Scott gets his (downsized) corp tax break

Thursday, May 5th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The Florida House approved a $30 million cut in the state’s corporate income tax Thursday, giving Gov. Rick Scott a small share of the deep reduction in the levy the first-year chief executive had sought.

In the usually heavily partisan House, many Democrats joined with ruling Republicans in sending the measure to the governor, who has said he sees the cut as a good first-step. The measure (CS/HB 7185) was OK’d 110-5.

“Florida’s open for business,” said Rep. George Moraitis, R-Fort Lauderdale. “We’re cutting taxes.”

Scott sought a $459 million, first-year reduction in the state’s corporate income tax, by reducing the state’s 5.5 percent rate to 3 percent.

House and Senate budget-writers, though,  agreed only to a $30 million cut,  increasing the state’s exemption on corporate taxpayers.

Currently, businesses are exempt from the corporate levy if their payments would total less than $5,000. The legislation would boost that exemption to $25,000, with supporters saying it effectively exempts almost half of Florida’s 30,000 businesses now paying the tax, taking mostly smaller companies off the tax roll.

Rep. Steven Precourt, R-Orlando, sponsor of the measure, said it would save these companies an average $1,100-a-year.

Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, said the tax reduction will eventually help state lawmakers, by helping generated more tax dollars to fuel future budgets. Lawmakers this year struggled to close an almost $3.8 billion budget shortfall in the $69.7 billion spending plan awaiting a vote Friday, the session’s final scheduled day.

“Small businesses are tax collectors,” Baxley said. “I’ve got dozens of small businesses back home and they’ve shuttered their doors and they don’t send taxes to us anymore. That’s why we’re in a $4 billion hole.”

Only a handful of Democrats voted against the cut.

Among them was Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, who said it would do little for businesses and was a move toward eventually eliminating the corporate levy — which he opposes.

Clemens said, “I appreciate the intent,” of helping small businesses. But he criticized lawmakers for not setting aside dollars for teacher merit pay and moving to cut unemployment compensation benefits for Florida’s jobless.

Rep. Elaine Schwartz, D-Hollywood, said she supports the tax cut. But providing better financing for schools and health and human services is what will help businesses prosper, she said.

“We can’t take our eye off that ball,” Schwartz said.

House and Senate divide on cut to jobless benefits

Wednesday, May 4th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Lawmakers remained divided Wednesday night on efforts to limit unemployment compensation in Florida — with the House reworking a Senate plan linking the number of weeks a jobless worker can collect benefits.

Instead, the House dug-in, mostly — around the plan it approved in the session’s opening week. The House wanted to reduce the state’s current 26 weeks of benefits to 20 — but boosted that by three weeks as the session’s horse-trading entered the homestretch.

“It has a long-term, positive effect on businesses, because it lowers the unemployment taxes,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota.

The Senate has resisted a direct cut in weekly benefits, instead tying the duration of benefits to the state’s unemployment rate. A full, 26-weeks would only be available to those out-of-work when unemployment hit 12 percent. The current 11.1 percent jobless rate would allow for 24 weeks.

The House also supports a sliding scale. But it wants to roll-back the maximum benefits to 23 weeks.

“How does this help the unemployed find jobs?” asked Rep. Joe Gibbons, D-Pembroke Pines.

The bill also demands that those seeking benefits take a skills test aimed at matching them to jobs. It also gives employers more authority to challenge a worker’s bid for benefits, with Florida’s biggest industry organizations saying the current system overly favors those out of work.

Holder, a Sarasota Republican, said he thought his Senate counterpart, Nancy Detert, R-Venice, would meet him on the middle-ground.

“We feel it’s an appropriate compromise,” Holder said.





Florida’s unemployment rate dropping like the nation’s: Scott takes credit

Friday, April 15th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida’s unemployment rate dropped last month by its largest margin in more than eight years, and Gov. Rick Scott was ready Friday to take plenty of credit for the improving economy.

Florida’s March rate stands at 11.1 percent — down from 11.5 percent the month before. Scott also pointed out, “While that number is still too high, that is the lowest unemployment rate we’ve seen in more than a year. And it represents a nearly one percent decrease since I’ve become governor.”

“We’re seeing an encouraging trend…We’re clearly heading in the right direction. But we’ve got a long way to go,” Scott said.

He also used the findings to again push the Legislature to embrace his call for cutting state regulations, reducing the corporate income tax and consolidating job development agencies — and their millions of incentive dollars –under him.

Scott acknowledged that the national unemployment rate — at 8.8 percent, still well below Florida’s — had declined by only one-tenth of one percent since February.

But Scott failed to point out — as state economist Rebecca Rust did after Scott exited his news conference without taking any questions — that the national unemployment rate also has dropped by 1 percent over the past four months.

That basically mirrors Florida’s drop.

Some 43,800 jobs have been added in Florida since Scott took office in January. But have Scott’s policies helped spark that economy?

“We can’t say,” Rust conceded.

House votes party line on jobless rewrite

Thursday, March 10th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The House approved overhauling the state’s unemployment compensation system, cutting benefits and reducing tax rates in a strict, party-line vote.

The 81-38 vote in the Republican-dominated House was designed as a first-week-of-the-session message that the GOP is looking to help businesses rebound — possibly at the expense of Florida’s jobless.

The move came even as the state’s Agency for Workforce Innovation reported Thursday that the state’s unemployment rate hit 11.9 percent in January, down slightly from December’s 12 percent level. The state lost 13,000 jobs in January, AWI said.

But Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, said the House bill (HB 7005) will help turnaround what he called a “capsized economy.”

“It sends a resounding message to the business community: Florida is the place to be,” Holder said.

But Democrats, who unanimously opposed the measure, said the measure would hurt out-of-work Floridians.

“I’m pro-business. But I’m also pro-people,” said Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee. (more…)

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