TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Blasted by everyone from Florida’s struggling unemployed the businesses that fund part of every unemployment check, the Florida Senate appears to backing down from a hardline bill to cut benefits and raise unemployment taxes, with a new, softer proposal announced Tuesday.

The Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee approved 5-1 a compromise bill (SB 728) that’s better-liked by advocates for the jobless and also would no longer raise the maximum unemployment tax rate for some employers.

Advocates for the jobless already liked the Senate version of the effort to reduce unemployment costs better than a bill proposed in the House, because the Senate bill doesn’t cut the number of weeks that benefits are available. The House measure (HB 7005) would cut the time the unemployed would be eligible for state assistance by six weeks.

Some in the business community were also pleased Tuesday that the committee scrapped a plan to raise the maximum unemployment compensation tax rate for some employers, which is currently 5.4 percent. Originally, Sen. Nancy Detert’s bill would have raised that to 6.4 percent for employers who tend to lay off the most workers. That was an effort to try to get employers in industries that are laying off lots of workers to pay more, in an effort to reduce the burden on those with fewer layoffs. The idea split the business lobby between those who sought that change, and those who would have seen their rates go up.

“Many members do not have a total comfort level with that and neither did I,” said Detert, R-Venice before a voice vote on an amendment removing the increase.

The measure also no longer would require a skills test as a condition of starting benefits, but still would require one as a condition of continuing those benefits.

“This is a work in progress,” said Karen Woodall, of the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy, who advocates for the unemployed. At least, she said, “the Senate is taking a much more responsible approach than the House.”

The lone no vote in the committee on Tuesday was from Sen. Jeremy Ring, D-Boca Raton. Democrat Bill Montford of Tallahassee voted with four Republicans in favor of the bill.

The unemployment compensation that spiked with the state’s jobless rate in the last couple years has been a major issue for employers because their tax rates have gone up to pay for the additional benefits. Now, they’re also on the hook for interest payments to Washington, because the state has had to borrow about $2 billion to pay claims since the unemployment compensation trust fund ran out of money in August, 2009. The interest alone on the debt is $61 million.

“You may have already heard from the employers in your district,” said Detert. “There’s more than a good need for unemployment compensation reform.”

But without reducing the length of compensation, lawmakers are looking mostly to prod people back to work sooner – in part by making sure they’re looking hard for a job – and to reduce claims by those who shouldn’t be collecting unemployment at all.

“We’re asking them to actually prove they’ve been out looking for a job,” Detert said. “Basically it changes the benefits, and gives a more level playing field between claimants and employers.”

The News Service of Florida provided material for this report.


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