Florida’s economy is collapsing under COVID-19 — and they only have Republicans are to blame

Florida’s economy is collapsing under COVID-19 — and they only have Republicans are to blame
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, photo via Twitter.

Who would have imagined that the conman responsible for the largest Medicare fraud in U.S. history could be so … corrupt?

Way back in 2012, then-Gov. Rick Scott made headlines with a weird new policy: Any claim for unemployment could no longer be done by phone or in person—it had to be filed online using his new website. The website, which cost $77.9 million, was a disaster right out of the gate. For the first quarter of 2012, over 60,000 workers were denied benefits for “procedural” reasons—an increase of more than 200% from the year before.

This wasn’t another display of Scott’s well-established incompetence. No, the system did exactly what it was designed to do: Fail. People complained, but were ignored; I mean, who cares what the unemployed say? Now that the system has collapsed under the weight of the coronavirus layoffs, even Republicans have admitted that failure was the entire point of the scheme. But why, you might ask, would anyone design a website to fail?

Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel offers an explanation.

[Florida’s unemployment website] was created in 2011 by former Gov. Rick Scott and GOP legislators who wanted to cut benefits so Florida businesses could pay less in unemployment taxes.

Their scheme worked. By 2015, Florida ranked No. 1 in denying benefits ... and 50th in unemployment tax rates.

The unemployment tax rate in Florida is already the lowest in the nation, at $50 per person per year. But for most, it is effectively zero, because the unemployed can’t access their benefits. Scott’s own adviser admitted to this when he told Republican legislators that Scott was interested in “controlling the outflow of benefits,” as opposed to asking Big Business to pay their fair share. That’s why this monstrosity of a website was built.

Going back several years, state auditors and the media documented hundreds of technical system errors that repeatedly booted users from the system. Those who got exasperated and tried to contact the state agency by phone were also out of luck. One state document said workers only took 2% of the incoming calls.

Gov. Scott won re-election in 2014, and a Senate seat in 2018, campaigning on the low unemployment rate, which he measured by how many people were on the intentionally-inaccessible unemployment benefits. Even more sinister? Rick Scott coupled this online disaster with a reduction to the benefit period, cutting down the state’s maximum from 26 weeks to 12 weeks. The benefits were already notoriously stingy—always in the bottom five among all states. Florida’s state average is $254 per week, while the national average is $372 per week.

Even now, as a senator, Rick Scott is still cruel to the jobless. He was one of four Republican senators to oppose the temporary increase in unemployment benefits in the coronavirus stimulus package—because he thought that $600 per week in additional aid was far too generous.

But none of this is the worst of it.

From 2010, when Rick Scott first took office, the U.S. Department of Labor gave Florida almost 1.6 BILLION DOLLARS to help implement unemployment benefits.

Florida took the money, which leaves us with a (1.6) billion-dollar question: Where did the money go? That $1.6 billion doesn’t even account for the tens of millions Florida was given since the outbreak of the pandemic.

Rep. Stephanie Murphy, a Democrat serving the northeast Orlando area, has been swamped with thousands of phone calls from people who can’t get their benefits. Murphy is now demanding a federal investigation.

Yes, the Inspector General should investigate, and the guilty should be put in prison. It is unlikely this will happen, of course, since this current administration is not interested in investigating crimes done by Republicans. This is another reason it is critical to throw the GOP out of power in November.

There is something of a silver lining to this scandal: Rick Scott’s meticulous plan to run for president in 2024 has likely been killed at last. He went from Trumpian star to pariah in the span of weeks: even Gov. Ron DeSantis is furious with Scott, as are tons of Republican operatives who see Florida slipping away from Trump’s grasp. The unemployment debacle cannot in any way be blamed on “both sides”: The liability is completely owned by the GOP, and Floridians know it.

DeSantis has been scrambling, and even tried to switch to paper applications, but that’s been a disaster, like everything else he’s ever done.

Even the chairman of the state party, Republican state Sen. Joe Gruters, is furious— but not on behalf of the average Florida citizen. Rather, Gruters’ own mother was laid off, and she has tried over 100 times to get benefits over the past few weeks. So now, suddenly, Gruters sees there is a problem.

Of course, DeSantis could call a special legislative session—not only to fix the website issues and launch an investigation, but to increase the pathetic pittance that unemployed Floridians receive. He won’t, of course—because the GOP says we just can’t afford this right now. Please do keep that in mind once the well-connected industries in the Sunshine State start getting several billions in bailout funds.

When this fiasco started over eight years ago, I recall defenders of then-Gov. Scott arguing that not getting unemployment benefits might even be a good thing for people who just lost their job. After all, Scott had already refused the Medicaid expansion for our state, so if a single mom with two kids made just over $3,200 a year, she was already ineligible for Medicaid, because $267 a month for a family of three was just too much money. Since unemployment counts as income, it was better for Mom not to work at all and let her kids starve—hey, at least they’d have healthcare. That was the GOP plan, and Democrats begged Scott to take the expansion, which would have increased the annual income threshold to over $25,000, with the federal government picking up the tab. They were told to shove it.

Yet Rick Scott still wasn’t done screwing Florida over. Scott also completely gutted the state health department; Florida’s capacity to deal with a massive outbreak was dismantled, thanks to our previous governor and his allies. To be fair, previous Republican governors made cuts to this department over the years, but no one came close to the damage done by Scott. He cut a whopping $130 million in just two years, and eliminated about 3,700 health department jobs. Worst of all, Scott closed Florida’s only specialized tuberculosis treatment facility—during a the largest tuberculosis outbreak in the nation! The Center for Disease Control and Prevention slammed Scott for doing that, but he just didn’t care. He never does.

As a direct result, the state agencies most able to help during this current crisis are flailing, and Floridians are suffering. Bottom line: We are screwed. Any short-sighted savings the state received by viciously hurting our own citizens have been completely wiped out over this past month. The state is now bleeding money.

Worse, Florida’s economy is also collapsing, according to Wall Street research firm Moody’s Analytics. Our largest industry by far is tourism, which traditionally contributes $50 billion to our economy. The second largest is agriculture. Our already-suffering farmers are being devastated by falling commodity prices, but it’s even worse for our tourism industry, since Florida has the highest concentration of service sector jobs in the country.

Tourism has always been a poor excuse for a stable economy, mostly because there are hardly any benefits and workers have zero protections, but it’s what Florida’s got. So as long as tourists and snowbirds kept coming, people could scrape by. Unfortunately, with the pandemic, people aren’t traveling, and our large elderly population is staying indoors. Layoffs have skyrocketed across the state as hotels, restaurants, and attractions have shut down, and nearly all events have been cancelled. Unemployment in Florida is expected to reach 20%. Florida food bank lines literally stretch for miles.

Right now, more than 825,000 people in Florida have filed for unemployment benefits--a state record. However, that’s not even close to the number of people who need them. Hundreds of thousands more have been unable to file because the state’s system is so jammed. Even worse, only 35,000 of those who filed have had their claims processed so far.

At the very least, Ron DeSantis could declare a moratorium on evictions, as some other Democratic governors have done. But he hasn’t, and he won’t. Florida apartment managers are sending outright nasty letters to tenants, telling them that if they are expecting any relief because of the pandemic, they are sorely mistaken.

Business owners here are in particularly bad shape, due to the fact that our most populous regions are packed with small and micro-businesses, with just a few employees. These types of businesses are the least protected because they don't have access to the lines of credit they need, and most carry no leverage to exert on the commercial landlords for rent. Many will likely go under this month. The bridge loan program that Ron DeSantis touted to save Florida businesses has already maxed out--only 1,000 Florida businesses got any help.

Perhaps Republicans will finally realize that giving small businesses and workers no protections is not only immoral, but bad fiscal policy. If Floridians could at least have accessed the benefits they rightly deserve, we might have been able to alleviate so much unnecessary suffering by our people and our economy. Instead, it will take years for us to recover, and with the inevitable loss of life, some families will never recover. Republicans are scrambling now, but not out of concern for any of our citizens. They know the populace is angry at both our state’s Republican Party overlords and Donald Trump. Joe Biden has an 11-point lead over Trump in the latest CNN poll, and it’s only going to get worse for Republicans. Trump isn’t as reviled as Sen. Scott, who has now dropped to a 37% approval rating … yet.

Trump knows this fiasco hurts him, as his re-election is the only thing he’s been focused on. You might have noticed that Florida is getting all of the medical supplies it’s requested. In fact, we got everything Ron DeSantis asked for and more, while other blue states, where Trump has no chance of winning, are getting less than 10% of requested supplies. Yet stocking Florida with masks and ventilators is not enough. People here who don’t have the virus but have lost their jobs, or most of their business, are furious at Trump’s inept response.

You’d also be hard-pressed to find anyone here extolling the leadership of DeSantis. After all, DeSantis refused to give a shelter-at-home order until he got permission from Donald Trump. DeSantis also declared the freaking WWE an “essential service” so they could host wrestling events. He did this the exact same day that the WWE owner’s wife announced spending $18.5 million for pro-Trump television advertising through her super PAC; surely the two aren’t connected.

Floridians, meanwhile, are remarkably resilient. We will get through this, like most disasters, even if this level of suffering was avoidable and is Scott-inflicted. The Republican leadership has barely concealed their contempt for workers, nor their outright Ayn Randian hatred for those who are unable to work. This selfishness may have worked while the economy was good, but now that it’s been decimated, Floridians have finally awakened to the monsters they have put in office.

Now, it’s a matter of inspiring them to vote them all out.

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