Legislation extending collection of the state sales tax on online purchases — and using the $1 billion it would raise to spare businesses an increase in the tax they pay to support the unemployment compensation system — cleared the House Thursday.
The 93-24 vote sent the legislation (SB 50) to the Senate, which must accept a House floor amendment that, in addition to the unemployment tax break, would cut the tax businesses pay to rent commercial space.
House Democrats broke rank on the vote, with several members of the legislative Black Caucus voting yes on the legislation. Two other members of the Black Caucus were shown as “missed” votes. Other Democrats, fewer than a dozen, also voted with the GOP.
But House Democratic leaders in the Legislature denounced what they described as taxing ordinary people who least can afford to pay in order to benefit their employers. The unemployment trust fund was vastly depleted amid COVID-related joblessness, which also crashed the system’s web portal.
“If your policy bingo has ‘force people failed by the state’s unemployment system to pay for the failed unemployment system,’ congratulations — I guess you get a square,” said Evan Jenne, co-leader of the Democratic caucus.
Union leaders denounced the vote during a Zoom conference later Thursday morning.
“This Legislature has failed to address the real problems and found another way to take money from the taxpayers of Florida and give it to wealthy businesses. It’s just a shame that they haven’t taken this opportunity to fix the system,” said Daniel Reynolds, president of the AFL-CIO for Broward County.
Rep. Nick DiCeglie of Pinellas County invoked a familiar GOP trope — that unemployment compensation stops recipients from seeking work.
“One of the hardest things that we’re dealing with is an actual work force that is able and willing to go to work, because they’re able to stay home and receive paychecks when there are thousands and thousands of jobs available. But that’s a story for another day,” DiCeglie said.
Union members on the union Zoom call bridled at the suggestion that people prefer to draw unemployment pay than do a job. The system — the stingiest in the country, with low compensation rates and short eligibility — is the second-most friendly to business, a according to the libertarian Tax Foundation.
“Shame on any legislator who puts it back on the workers for being lazy and not willing to go back to work, which is what that is accusing people of being, and taking the responsibility off of themselves and putting it on the workers,” said Wendi Walsh of Unite Here’s South Florida chapter, which represents hotel, restaurant, casino, and airport workers.
The House vote — and likely final passage in the Senate — may not be the last word on the unemployment system. Legislation (SB 1906) pending in the Senate Appropriations Committee, and backed by influential Republicans, would increase the weekly jobless benefit from $275 to $375.