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Crist Signs Bill to Extend Unemployment Benefits

Gov. Charlie Crist quietly signed legislation Monday that throws a life line to unemployed Floridians, making up to 20 weeks of extra benefits available, but increases taxes on business.

It is the second tax increase that Crist has signed into law this year, with the first being a cigarette tax hike of $1 per pack. The bill (SB 810) that Crist signed – without any fanfare – on Monday increases the amount of unemployment taxes paid by businesses in an effort to help shore up the unemployment trust fund.

With unemployment hovering around 9 percent, the state is currently paying out about $100 million a week in benefits. State officials have said that the trust fund will be in the red by August and they were planning to ask for a federal loan to help plug the hole.

The bill extends benefits to those workers who have used up their full 59 weeks on or after Feb. 22 of this year, but would increase employers' contribution rate to the fund. That would start July 5 and run through Dec. 26.

In extending the benefits, the state also becomes eligible for more than $400 million federal stimulus money that will help keep the unemployment trust fund solvent.

But the bill includes a hit for businesses, which will now be taxed on an additional $1,500 of an employees' wages until 2015. Currently, employers pay unemployment taxes on $7,000 of the workers' wages – under the bill, that goes up to $8,500.

During the session, Republican lawmakers defeated an attempt by Democrats to change the eligibility rules for unemployment in an effort to pull down an additional $444 million stimulus money. Republicans said those eligibility increases would have added to the state's obligation permanently, while the stimulus money was only temporary.

Meanwhile, Crist on Monday evening also vetoed a bill that could have delayed a call for installing new sprinkler systems in condominiums. Currently, local governments may require condos to put sprinklers in by 2014, but lawmakers this year passed a bill (SB 714) that would have made several changes to condominium law, including delaying the sprinkler requirement until 2025. Backers said with the current economy, the retrofitting would be too expensive.

“I am sensitive to the costs associated with installing the fire sprinkler systems, especially in these challenging economic times,” Crist wrote in his veto message. “However, in the event of a fire, public safety for residents and for the firefighters and emergency medical personnel who lay their lives on the line to provide services greatly outweigh all other considerations."

Crist noted that his predecessor, Gov. Jeb Bush, vetoed the same legislation in 2006.

The governor also said he was directing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation to initiate a comprehensive review of “actual retrofit costs and the impacts that retrofitting may have on insurance premiums.”

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