System overhaul sought by Manatee Chamber

jsalman@bradenton.comJanuary 18, 2012 

MANATEE -- The Manatee Chamber of Commerce is pushing state lawmakers to streamline the unemployment system in Florida, while slashing taxes for employers.

The measure is among a handful of priorities outlined in the chamber’s 2012 legislative platform to improve the business climate in Southwest Florida.

Despite changes approved by the Florida Legislature last spring, the Chamber of Commerce believes another overhaul in the unemployment system will become crucial to reduce the program’s debt and burden on businesses.

Lawmakers last year shortened the duration an unemployed worker can collect checks and added safeguards to ensure a beneficiary was actively seeking work.

Unemployment taxes in Florida also were increased about $100 per employee to help cover a $2.4 billion deficit incurred from jobless benefits paid through the recession. That increase took effect Jan. 1.

“This is no small potatoes,” said Neil Spirtas, the chamber’s vice president of public policy and small business. “That money could go toward other arenas that impact growth.”

The minimum unemployment compensation rate has jumped from $72.10 in 2011 to $171.70 this year, while the maximum rate climbed $81 to $459 per employee. Those increases added up to nearly $400 million across Florida, state records show.

Coupled with a 10 percent workers’ compensation increase, the increase could force small businesses to lay off workers or postpone plans for expansion, according to the chamber.

The organization surveyed its members in November to gauge opinions on the current structure.

Based on 149 responses, those polled were dead split on whether the system was fair, with 40 percent on each side. Nearly 90 percent, however, said they needed more assistance in the hearing process.

As a result, the chamber is lobbying to add a component to the unemployment system that would establish representation, almost like a circuit manager who deals with cases and can assist in the process, Spirtas said.

A group of chamber officials are slated to go to Tallahassee next week to meet with delegates. So far, many seem to be on their side.

“A lot of us are very concerned,” said Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton. “Ninety-nine months of unemployment is the equivalent of getting an AA degree. Maybe we should have them go to school or get proper training. There’s plenty of jobs out there, the problem is people aren’t qualified to do them.”

But because the program’s deficit is so steep, some lawmakers just don’t see a way around the tax given the number of recession-battered workers cashing checks.

Legislators also are facing a projected $2 billion budget shortfall themselves, leaving little room to help out.

“It’s a complex formula,” said Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, who represents portions of Manatee. “We just can’t afford to pay it for the business community. We’ve done that before.”

Other issues on the chamber’s platform include workforce education funding equity, Internet sales tax enforcement, and maintaining the Florida Water Management Districts and Basin Boards.

Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095.

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