State Politics

Crist to focus on economy during speech

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist says he’ll focus on Florida’s sagging economy in his fourth and final State of the State address today as the Legislature convenes its annual session facing a potential $3.2 billion budget gap.

Figuring out how to fill that hole without raising taxes in an election year is expected to dominate the 60-day session.

Lawmakers also will be considering legislation to delay an unemployment compensation tax increase and other proposals designed to help the state’s struggling businesses and slow job losses.

Florida’s jobless rate has continued to climb. It hit 11.8 percent in December, just a hair under the 11.9 percent for May 1975 — the highest since Florida began keeping unemployment statistics in 1970. State economists have forecast it’ll top out at 12.3 percent later this year.

“The focus of all of us is the economy,” Crist said. “It continues to be jobs, the economy, try to get people back to work.”

Two similar unemployment compensation bills (HB 7033, SB 1666) are on the opening day calendar in both chambers. House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala, said a final version could be passed and on its way to Crist’s desk before the governor delivers his State of the State address at 6 p.m.

The legislation would delay an increase in the unemployment tax paid by businesses and other employers for two years but boost the state’s borrowing from the federal government by $2.2 billion over that span to pay compensation to laid off workers.

“We know how important it is right now that we do something with the unemployment compensation issue because there will be employers, if we don’t, receiving an invoice on April 1 that will have increased most of their premiums by 1,000 percent,” Cretul said.

The minimum annual tax is set to go from $8.40 to $100.30 per employee and the maximum from $378 to $459 if lawmakers do nothing. Crist, though, has ordered tax bills held until the Legislature acts.

Each employer’s tax is based on a combination of factors, including recent layoff experience and how much money the state has in its unemployment compensation trust fund. That fund dropped to zero last year, and the state has had to borrow $1.2 billion to pay jobless claims. Rates are set to automatically increase to pay back those loans and return the fund to solvency.

The Legislature also contributed to the higher tax by raising the amount of taxable wages from $7,000 to $8,500 per employee. The new legislation also will temporarily roll back that increase.

The Senate also has scheduled debate today on a bill (SB 1034) to tighten ethics regulations for the Public Service Commission, but Cretul said the unemployment bill is the only legislation the House will take up on opening day.

The PSC measure is in response to the resignation of two commission staffers and disciplinary action against others due to socializing with or off-the-record communications with utility officials last year while two major electric rate cases were pending.

Crist will speak to a joint session of the Legislature in the House chamber. It’ll be his last State of the State address because he has chosen not to seek re-election to a second term. Instead, he’s running for the Republican U.S. Senate nomination.

Two years ago, Crist broke a tradition of speaking in the morning in the belief more people would tune in to hear him during the evening.