The Senate has agreed to the House’s plan to modernize the state’s unemployment system.
Through budget negotiations so far, the two chambers had disagreed on how to spend $36 million for the state Reemployment Assistance program. The House wanted those funds for the modernization, but the Senate wanted those funds to clear the backlog in cases.
Of the agreed upon funds, $19.3 million will go toward increasing the maintenance and operations of CONNECT, the Department of Economic Opportunity’s unemployment portal. More than $15.5 million would go to system modernization. The remaining $1.2 million would go for a private contract to conduct independent verification and validation services.
More than $4.8 million of those funds would go to the department, for ongoing maintenance and operations, while the remaining would be held in reserve.
The allocation is a one-year deal.
Senators also agreed to a $2 million payout to create a consumer-first workforce system, a priority of House Speaker Chris Sprowls. Additionally, the Senate agreed to create the Office of Reimagining Education and Career Help (REACH), with an $887,503 allocation that includes eight full-time employees.
Legislation transforming the career system passed the House with bipartisan support last week. Overall, the legislation aims to create a more efficient pipeline from the classroom to the workplace by streamlining state career resources and providing accountability across all new programs.
The Senate also wanted $2 million, up from its initial $1.5 million suggestion, to assess reemployment assistance. However, the Senate abandoned that position when they accepted the House and budget leader Rep. Jay Trumbull‘s latest offer regarding the state economic development budget.
Senators and budget leader Sen. Kelli Stargel agreed to let DEO submit a budget amendment to request additional spending authority to address the backlog once the U.S. Department of Labor awards funds to the state.
The COVID-19 pandemic revealed critical problems with CONNECT. A flood of applicants at the height of the pandemic crashed the portal, leading Gov. Ron DeSantis to pillory the system and the contract that created it.
DEO 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 Senate also wants to increase unemployment benefits for Floridians, but DeSantis appeared to pass on that offer.