A proposed overhaul of the infrastructure behind the state’s much-maligned unemployment assistance program had lawmakers asking, but what about policy?
The House Infrastructure & Tourism Appropriations Committee voted in favor of Lighthouse Point Rep. Chip LaMarca’s bill to improve Florida’s unemployment program, which Florida calls its “reemployment assistance” program.
The House bill (HB 1463) would modernize the process of requesting unemployment assistance in Florida by improving the technological infrastructure of the state’s workforce website, called CONNECT. LaMarca called the proposed new system “a modular cloud-based reemployment assistance system.”
The need for modernization intensified during the pandemic as CONNECT buckled under the weight of Florida’s increasing unemployment claims.
Under the bill, the Reemployment Assistance Modernization Strategic Planning Office would oversee the modernization project, which would be ongoing. Every three years the Office would submit an annual report to the Governor, Senate and House, which would include a three-year outlook of recommended modernization projects.
The bill also establishes the Office of Economic Accountability and Transparency within the Department of Economic Opportunity to track data and provide accountability.
The bill makes changes to the Florida Small Cities Community Development Block Grant Program, which is a program that aims to reverse community decline through grants for community development and project planning. Specifically, the bill makes it easier for communities to apply for multiple grants, allows more of the program funding to be set aside for declared emergencies and makes ineligible communities DEO has determined to have improperly used the grant, among other things.
Dane Eagle, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, testified during the committee saying he looks at this as a “process bill” rather than a policy bill.
“The last thing I want to do is throw a bunch of money out the door, but we need to fix this problem,” Eagle said. “We’ve been working very closely with the House and Senate. Of course, the Governor is fully behind us with his support.”
Eagle offered to answer questions from committee members, though only Rep. Diane Hart voiced any concerns.
Hart said inefficiencies in the unemployment interface should be fixed, but the underlying policy still presents a barrier.
“Working on our system, I know, is critically important. But also know that we do have to work on how many people get approved and not make it as difficult as it was this past year for people to get it,” Hart said referring to unemployment checks.
Hart’s concerns were echoed by representatives from two groups who showed up to speak favorably of the bill, but also suggested other unemployment policies need to be addressed.
A representative from the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy said the new system won’t help the state’s low recipiency rate of unemployment claims.
“This is a great first step in modernizing the process of unemployment. if we don’t modernize the policy that informs the process what we’ll be doing is getting a great computer that can deny people quicker.”
Rich Templin, director of politics and public policy with the Florida AFL-CIO, also said the recipiency rate has been an issue after Gov. Rick Scott in 2011 signed into law policies that would go on to have far-reaching cuts to the state’s unemployment benefits.
“I know everybody talks about the maximum weekly benefit of $275 not being enough. That is nowhere near as important as the fact that our recipiency rate was between 10% and 14%. That means everybody else didn’t get a dime,” Templin said.
Senate companion (SB 1948) legislation is in its first of three committees.