Gov. DeSantis appoints top GOP lawmaker to oversee the agency in charge of FL’s broken unemployment system

Jobless workers demonstrate in Miami Springs in support of continued federal unemployment benefits in the pandemic economy. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Republican Dane Eagle, the Florida House Majority Leader who just lost his party’s primary for a congressional seat, will take over Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity, which includes the state’s beleaguered unemployment benefits system.

Eagle, a commercial real estate broker from Cape Coral, replaces Tallahassee administrator Ken Lawson, who stepped down this week at a time when the unemployment benefits system continues to leave thousands of jobless workers desperate for checks.

Florida’s benefits are the stingiest in the nation, according to a States Newsroom analysis of unemployment benefits nationwide.

“The department has suffered some setbacks, but I have no doubt that Dane is up to the task. He is personable, enjoys broad bipartisan support, and I look forward to the many successes to come,” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a written statement Wednesday.

The appointment didn’t satisfy everyone.

Eagle has “close to zero credentials in unemployment or small business relief,” said House Democrat Anna Eskamani of Orlando, one of the sharpest critics of Florida’s unemployment benefits system.

“For us, nothing changes — we continue to push the Department of Economic Opportunity to get Floridians paid and will hold their leaders accountable,” Eskamani said.

She did note that Eagle came to the House one year after the Legislature, at then-Gov. Rick Scott’s instigation, cut maximum unemployment benefits during a time of high joblessness, so he has no fingerprints on that measure.

Dane Eagle. Credit: Florida House of Representatives website.

“We enter in precarious times and I look forward to working with my former colleagues to effectuate change and lead DEO into a bright future,” Eagle said in a written statement.

The governor removed oversight of the benefits system from Ken Lawson in mid-April in favor of Department of Management Services Director Jonathan Satter.

Besides administering unemployment claims, the department promotes business and community development, oversees disaster relief spending, and administers federal housing funds. Lawson continued administering those programs until he left, said Tiffany Vause, spokeswoman for the department.

Eagle will assume his new job on Sept. 14 and the department will disclose his salary at that time, Vause said. Lawson earned $162,000 per year.

In a letter Wednesday to House Speaker Jose Oliva, Eagle tendered his resignation from the Florida House of Representatives, effective at 11:59 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 11.

Satter will remain on hand to collaborate with Eagle on reforming the unemployment system, at least temporarily, Vause said.

Eagle served as Republican leader beginning in 2018 and as party whip before that. He served as vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and as a member of the Commerce Committee and Criminal Justice Subcommittee.

He narrowly lost the GOP primary for Congressional District 19 last month to Byron Donalds, who will face Democrat Cindy Banyai in November. Incumbent Republican Francis Rooney is stepping down from the southwest Florida district in Congress.

Florida’s unemployment benefits are the lowest nationwide, with a maximum weekly payout of $275 for 12 weeks, although for a time federal assistance boosted that by $600.

After the $600 federal supplement expired at the end of July, President Trump, by executive order, allowed at least a $300 supplement per week in benefits for the jobless. After most states applied for that $300 supplement, DeSantis last week decided to participate in the program.

DeSantis blamed Scott for overseeing the design of the benefits system but a state audit issued in March 2019, two months after DeSantis took office, warned of serious flaws in the program.