Special to South Florida Times
Just as he did during his campaign last fall, the governor is touting jobs, jobs, jobs. But Democratic lawmakers say this session could not have been worse for their constituents.
From unemployment compensation to education to economics, legislation passed in the session that ended Saturday under Scott and Jennifer Carroll, the first black lieutenant-governor, will send many African Americans back to the welfare lines, said one state representative.
“We have received a very tragic blow in many areas,” said state Rep. Barbara Watson,
“With the kinds of cuts that we’ve seen this past week, we’re in for more blows,” Watson said in a phone interview this week.
The most devastating legislation passed is a reduction in unemployment benefits, say Democratic lawmakers. The measure cuts the maximum unemployment benefits from the state from 26 weeks to 23 weeks if the jobless rate is at least 10.5 percent. It drops on a sliding scale to as few as 12 weeks when the unemployment rate falls to 5 percent or below.
“As we all know, African Americans are disproportionately among those who are unemployed,” Watson said. “We are simply going to be moving people from the unemployment compensation to the welfare lines. We’ll remove one person from that unemployment compensation and we move one entire family into the welfare rolls. I just think that was a very sad move on the part of the Legislature.”
Sen. Chris Smith, whose district spans parts of Broward and Palm Beach counties and includes many African Americans, said the loss of unemployment benefits is going to hurt.
“Those people who are out there looking for jobs will have three less weeks of financial help while they’re looking for jobs – and I think that’s critical during these economic times for all communities,” Smith said Tuesday in a phone interview.
Rep. Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, said in some parts of his district in Palm Beach County, unemployment is higher than 40 percent. The legislation that has been passed doesn’t bode well for many of his constituents, many of whom live in the most poverty-stricken areas of the county, particularly in the western communities such as The Glades, he said.
“It doesn’t help my constituents who can’t pay their bills or being kicked out of their homes because of foreclosures. I’m disappointed but this is the process,” Bernard has previously said.
Bernard and some other Democrats say Republican lawmakers spent much time and energy pushing a conservative social agenda, instead of taking action to create jobs, as they promised Floridians during the campaign last year.
That agenda included tighter restrictions on abortion and strengthening gun rights. A bill passed that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion and another protects gun owners with concealed weapons permits.
In education, lawmakers ended teacher tenure, tying teachers’ pay to performance, strengthened charter schools, expanded the vouchers program and cut education funding.
A proposal to cut funding to the three private historically black colleges in the state by 23 percent was softened to make the reduction only seven percent, Watson said. She is pleased at that action but dismayed by what she saw as a hit on educators and education.
“I just don’t know why [Scott] was in such a hurry to do that,” Watson said, referring to the governor’s signing the new teacher plan into law. Tying teacher pay to student performance is unfair, she said.
“I think that’s a travesty,” she said. “It doesn’t make commonsense for the state to demand more of our students while it cuts their resources. We are demanding more of our students (across the board) without providing the necessary funding. We are setting our children up for failure.”
Smith said it’s not only students who will suffer under the change in the education laws.
“School boards are going to be laying off teachers and personnel, because we’re putting in less money — and that’s a lot in both counties,” he said.
School districts are a major employer of African-Americans, not only teachers but also support help, from the bus drivers, to maintenance workers, “a lot of people who have worked for the school board for years. These employers are going to be cutting back,” he said.
Watson said instead of the jobs Scott and the GOP-dominated Legislature promised, she sees lots of job loss ahead. Law enforcement and corrections officers will be laid off due to less funding through privatization. Through the privatization of correctional facilities, more than 1,700 jobs will be lost, she predicted.
“When we see those types of jobs taking a hit, that’s a huge loss to my constituents,” Watson said.
The budget also requires public sector employees to pay three percent of their salaries towards their pensions, something that never happened.
In the end, during the wee hours of Saturday morning, the Legislature approved a $69.7 billion budget that critics say will eliminate more than 4,000 jobs.
It’s going to be tough with all the budget cuts,” Smith said. “That means less money in education, health care and a lot of the social services that a lot of our elderly African-Americans are depending on. They’re going to face some major cutbacks. So that’s going to be very tough, moving forward.”
Watson predicts that the state’s social safety net will disappear.
“We now have to come together and make sure our community survives. We’re going to have to weave this [safety] web ourselves as a community and I think we’ll be able to come through this,” Watson said.
Daphne Taylor may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.