The Florida House on Thursday voted along party lines to pass legislation that would reduce the time that someone could get state unemployment benefits, an action that came hours after new joblessness figures showed nearly one in eight potential workers still idle in January.
The Republican-dominated chamber passed the bill (HB 7005) on an 81-38 vote. It would cut the time that an unemployed worker could receive state benefits from 26 weeks to 20 weeks.
"Our constituents, they want jobs, not unemployment compensation, just jobs," said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, who sponsored the bill that would effectively offer relief to businesses that pay unemployment taxes. "It encourages other companies to move to Florida and provide new jobs to our unemployed workers."
The vote followed an hour of debate, with 30 minutes allowed for each side.
"This is not the time to crush down on the middle class and the lower economic class when they're at the height of their need," said Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
The Legislature has targeted state benefits cuts as a way to reduce an increase in unemployment taxes paid by businesses that otherwise would automatically go into effect as a result of Florida's continuing high unemployment rate.
The legislation still has to pass the Senate and be signed by Republican Gov. Rick Scott before becoming law. A similar Senate bill (SB 728) would make some of the same changes but retain the 26-week maximum for unemployment benefits.
Meanwhile, the benchmark for Scott to make good on his job-creation promises was set earlier Thursday when Florida labor officials announced an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent for January.
Scott, a Naples multimillionaire and former businessman who was sworn into office on Jan. 4, pledged to create 700,000 new jobs in seven years in addition to the 1 million that Florida is expected to add over that span as the state's economy recovers. He has continued to make that campaign promise his top goal.
Scott, whose "Let's Get to Work," mantra helped fuel his successful campaign, praised the House for immediately taking up the bill and passing it on the third day of the legislative session.
"We are creating an environment for Florida's job creators to get the state back to work," Scott said in a statement.
Florida's unemployment numbers dropped to 11.9 percent in January, a slight improvement from December's 12 percent figure, but it's still almost three percentage points higher than the national average of 9 percent.
Despite the modest improvement, the 1.1 million still unable to find work is "unacceptably high," Agency for Workforce Innovation Director Cynthia Lorenzo said Thursday. Scott used the same phrase when December's figures were announced Jan. 21.
Fifty-two counties reported double-digit unemployment numbers in January, compared to 50 in December.
Flagler County in northeast Florida reported the highest January unemployment among 67 counties, with 16 percent of its workforce idled. Hernando County in west-central Florida was close behind with 15.1 percent unemployment.
The counties with the high proportions of government employment, including universities, prisons and military bases, continued to post the healthiest employment figures, with Liberty County in the Florida Panhandle and Monroe County (the Florida Keys) at 7.6 percent and Alachua, Leon, Okaloosa and Wakulla counties all just under 9 percent.
February's unemployment numbers are scheduled to be released later this month.