No decision on unemployment in House, Senate budget talks

Unemployment sign
The Senate funds the backlog of unemployment claims. The House funds a system modernization.

The Senate and House have not come to agreement over the state’s unemployment system, despite three budget offers traded since the start of budget conferencing Friday.

The Senate’s second offer during Transportation and Economic Development (TED) budget talks Sunday did not meet the House on a $36 million allocation to modernize the state’s unemployment system.

The Senate, instead, puts the $36 million toward the backlog of the state’s unemployment assistance. Florida’s CONNECT unemployment system was not able to handle the flood of claims during the pandemic leading to a backlog of unemployment claims that needed processing.

Rep. Jayer Williamson chairs the TED budget committee for the House.

“The main sticking point we have is just the $36 million on where the Senate wants it and where we want it,” Williamson said. “It’s just a difference that happens in these negotiation processes. They want it in one spot we want it in another. And we’ll get it figured out hopefully pretty soon.”

The Senate does puts $2 million toward an assessment of the unemployment system. The assessment would include a third-party review of the “current business processes and systems supporting the Reemployment Assistance Program,” according to a proviso from the Senate. Florida renamed its unemployment benefits reemployment benefits in 2012.

The Senate’s initial budget proposal budgeted $1.5 million for the assessment. The latest offer jumped up to the $2 million offer.

The Department of Economic Opportunity already paid nearly $250,000 for an independent review of the state’s unemployment system in February.

After the report was released, Dane Eagle, executive director of the Department of Economic Opportunity, made the rounds in Tallahassee pitching the plan for a new system and explaining the weaknesses with the old website.

Eagle told the Senate’s Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response that $244 million over the next five years is needed to fix the problems.

The problems with the state’s unemployment system have been a regular topic during the Legislative Session and not just because of Eagle’s testimony. Lawmakers across the aisle fielded calls from constituents during the pandemic who could not get unemployment benefits because of a system that was not built to handle the flood of pandemic-related claims.

Sen. Jason Pizzo on Friday in an Appropriations Committee meeting described the conditions that his Senate staff were dealing with when the state’s unemployment system was in crisis during the first few months of the pandemic.

Pizzo said staff was up “till two, three o’clock in the morning, answering text messages and social media messages, responding to people’s apartments that threatened to commit suicide at 10:30 at night, sending money, going out of pocket and making the ultimate sacrifice.”

Haley Brown

Haley Brown covers state government for FloridaPolitics.com. Previously, Haley covered the West Virginia Legislature and anchored weekend newscasts for WVVA in Bluefield, W.Va. Haley is a Florida native and a graduate of the University of Florida. You can reach her at [email protected]



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