Florida Gov. Rick Scott and GOP Lawmakers Move to Gut Unemployment Benefits

This week, Florida lawmakers plan to vote on a bill that would dramatically cut both state and federal unemployment insurance, making the state’s already meager unemployment benefits the most restrictive in the nation. Even while they pursue massive tax breaks for corporations, Republican lawmakers are moving forward on legislation that would shorten state unemployment benefits from the 75-year national standard of 26 weeks to 20 weeks. The proposed change would also reduce federal benefits by thirteen weeks, effectively cutting jobless benefits twice.

According to the National Employment Law Project, the proposed reforms would leave the state’s one million unemployed workers “with much less economic protection than unemployed workers in any other state in the country.” Gov. Rick Scott (R) has endorsed the House’s bill, telling lawmakers that it advances his goal of limiting eligibility for unemployment benefits.

Since his corporate-funded inauguration in January, Scott and the Florida GOP have proposed a variety of reforms that “cast jobless workers in Florida as lazy, shiftless drug addicts” and would reduce and undermine unemployment insurance in the Sunshine State. In the past two months, Scott and his conservative allies have proposed legislation that would:

Require jobless workers who had been receiving unemployment benefits for more than twelve weeks to work at community colleges.

— Force unemployed workers receiving benefits to accept low-paying jobs.

Mandate volunteer service from jobless workers.

Administer drug tests to unemployed workers receiving benefits.

— Reject an extended grace period on federal loans Florida received to pay jobless benefits. Instead, Scott wants to immediately reduce jobless benefits and begin paying back Florida’s debt to the federal government.

Despite their pro-growth, business-friendly rhetoric, the Florida GOP’s dismantling of Florida’s unemployment insurance could actually derail the state’s economic recovery. A new study from the Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy shows that since the start of the recession, unemployment benefits have been a “key stimulus” — adding more than $9 billion into the state’s beleaguered economy. And George Wentworth of the National Employment Law Project argues that instead of cutting unemployment benefits, Florida should be taking advantage of federal stimulus dollars to modernize its unemployment insurance system, which is largely inaccessible to the state’s large population of temporary and low-wage workers.

But Scott has failed to pursue these necessary, and effective, reforms, instead lavishing more than $2.5 billion in tax expenditures on corporations. But Floridians are now pushing back against this corporate, right-wing agenda. Tomorrow, two days before the expected vote on the bill, thousands will take to the streets in rallies across the state to urge “state legislators to reject budget cuts and invest in Floridians again.”

Kevin Donohoe