The Florida House of Representatives approved an unemployment compensation bill that would shorten the number of weeks benefits are available and tighten eligibility for benefits, among other changes.

The bill’s sponsor, Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, said it will allow the state to replenish its unemployment trust fund, which owes the federal government some $2 billion after being depleted by the recession while minimizing increases in the levies on businesses that pay for the fund.

State Rep. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, was among the Democrats doubting the bill’s job-creation potential. He said it would save the average business, which has nine employees, $162 per year.

“I don’t know any of us that are going to hire anybody for $162 a year,” he said.

That may be true, Holder said, but the savings will be “much more substantial for larger companies.”

State Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, summed up the Democrats’ theme: They want to be pro-business, but also pro-people. Opponents of the measure have argued that unemployment compensation is intended to help businesses by helping to maintain the spending power of customers who lose their jobs, an argument the bill’s business backers have rejected.

Holder said that being pro-business means keeping costs low, which gives them more money to hire. He also said the bill should not be seen in isolation, but as the first step in a multi-pronged effort to “send a message to the business community” that Florida hears its concerns. Over time, that will help create jobs and fuel economic recovery.

Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, said in a statement released just after the vote that the House “responded to the needs of Florida’s job creators – our business community” by easing “the looming tax increases in the short term, while at the same time making needed adjustments to promote the long-term stability of the program.”

He encouraged the Senate to do the same, saying “swift action to head off this tax increase is essential.”

The Senate is working on a similar measure with a key difference: That bill does not shorten the number of weeks for which benefits are available.

Holder said he felt reducing the number of weeks is a priority because it would help reduce the strain of the unemployment fund. He added that he was confident he could find a way to reconcile his bill with state Sen. Nancy Detert’s. After all, he is one of her constituents.

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