ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Gov. Ron DeSantis has already rejected Democratic calls for a special session to deal with the state’s troubled unemployment system, but the arguments for and against such a session continued between Tampa Bay area-based state lawmakers on Friday.
Democrats don’t want to just talk about reforming the unemployment system, however. They also want to add Medicaid expansion and reforming election laws to the call – proposals that Republican state Reps. Jamie Grant and Jackie Toledo denounced as “political” during a Tampa Tiger Bay virtual meeting.
“I think there’s certainly some efforts at the federal level and the state level to try to turn a crisis into an opportunity to pass policies that people wouldn’t otherwise be able to pass,” Grant said when responding to why he voted against holding a special session. “I don’t think our constituents want to play political games or see us pander at this point.”
“All this political theater – that’s not what we need to be doing right now,” added Tampa GOP Rep. Jackie Toledo, who, like Grant, said that the focus for everyone in the state should be to work on fixing state’s unemployment website.
Not surprisingly, the two Democrats on the panel don’t feel the same way.
“I wholeheartedly and respectfully disagree with that narrative that it’s political theatre,” said Hillsborough County state Rep. Fentrice Driskell. “These issues are all interrelated. So when people lose their job and are unemployed, now they’re concerned about health care, right?”
“People are concerned about showing up at (voting) polls,” added St. Petersburg-based Democratic state Senator Darryl Rouson. “And I think that these things that the Legislature must address.”
DeSantis has ordered an investigation into the state’s faltering unemployment website, which he has derided as a “jalopy.” State officials signed a $40 million contract in 2011 with Deloitte Consulting to build the system which went live in 2013, but those costs soared to nearly $80 million after 14 contract amendments.
As of Friday, the state Department of Economic Opportunity reported more than 1.99 million unemployment applications filed since March 15, of which 1.5 million are considered “unique,” as some people have filed multiple claims. State payments totaling $669 million have been made to 741,997 applicants.
Driskell, Toledo and Rouson all agreed that in order to entice tourists to return to the Sunshine State and boost the economy, lawmakers need to fund Visit Florida, the state’s tourism marketing agency.
But Grant said that’s not the appropriate question at the moment.
“If we want to get our economy up and running, the first thing we do is we empower the business owners to open back up,” he said. “The first thing we do is quit sacrificing jobs from executive orders that have led to an economic assassination all over our state.”
Rouson said that while “everyone wants to get back to some semblance of normalcy,” it should not come at the risk of costing lives. He also talked about the toll that the lockdown has had on mental health.
Grant said he agreed with Rouson on that point, adding, “I think there’s a very credible argument to be made that the cure is going to kill far more people than the disease ever did.”
The two Democrats and two Republicans came together in expressing their collective revulsion about the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who was shot three times and killed as he jogged near his Georgia home in February. His case only made national headlines last week after a video surfaced showing two white men had chased him down and shot him. They later told police that they thought Arbery looked like a person suspected in a series of recent break-ins in the area.
“We see this happening over and over and over again, and people are getting tired of it,” said Driskell.
Toledo called Arbery’s death “devastating,” and wondered if there were any legal loopholes that could be addressed to prevent such a death in the future.