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Florida advances plan to fill unemployment coffers with online sales tax

'It just misses the mark on lifting up all people,' said Rep. Anna Eskamani
Posted at 6:27 PM, Mar 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-11 20:37:00-05

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Billions in uncollected online sales tax could soon be refilling Florida's drained unemployment system.

Lawmakers advanced a revamped version of HB 15 Thursday morning, 16-2. The legislation forces retailers to collect online sales tax, which most Floridians don't pay on their own. An estimated billion dollars annually would then be funneled into the unemployment trust fund.

Under current law, businesses refill that coffer by way of a rolling per-employee tax rate.

Bil sponsor, Rep. Charles Clemons, Sr., R-Jonesville, said the measure avoids what would have been a 700% increase over four years.

"We can help further solve some of the challenges that this pandemic has brought upon the businesses of Florida by keeping a cap on this unemployment rise in tax," he said.

State Rep. Charles Clemons
State Rep. Charles Clemons believes the added money will help the state to return to pre-pandemic levels over several years.

Florida had about $4 billion in the fund before the pandemic created a surge in unemployment claims. Payouts have since left the account with around $500 million.

Clemons hoped the bill would return Florida to a pre-pandemic level over the next several years, creating a comfortable buffer for future crises.

"A safe place," he said. "That would assure us that if any pandemic happens in the future, our unemployment system would be there."

While lawmakers in the Ways and Means Committee gave the policy bipartisan support, opponents said it equated to a new tax on consumers to support a shoddy unemployment program.

"You really want to go to these people and say, 'We’re increasing your taxes to prop up a system that utterly failed you?'" said Rich Templin, Florida AFL-CIO's policy director.

Rep. Anna Eskamani
State Rep. Anna Eskamani says money from an online sales tax could boost Florida's maximum unemployment wage.

Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, suggested the online sales tax could be better spent. She floated boosting Florida's maximum unemployment wage a hundred dollars to $375 each week. The state's rate is currently one of the lowest in the nation.

The Democratic lawmaker also proposed using funds to refill the affordable housing program trust fund.

"It just misses the mark on lifting up all people," she said. "We're taking a consumer tax and we're shifting it over to just the businesses without workers really seeing any benefit out of that decision."

HB 15 now moves to Commerce Committee, which could be its last stop before reaching the floor. The Senate version of this bill has already reached the chamber. Its sponsor plans to draft an amendment to align it with the House policy before taking a vote.