Governor signs bill to upgrade Florida's unemployment system

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Friday signed 15 bills, including measures that will help upgrade Florida’s much-maligned unemployment system, regulate the sale of electronic cigarettes and limit contributions to political committees supporting ballot initiatives.

Lawmakers passed the bills during the legislative session that ended last week, and DeSantis’ office announced the signings about 5:30 p.m. Friday without comment.

The changes to the unemployment system were part of a broad Department of Economic Opportunity bill (HB 1463) that received unanimous approval in the House and Senate. The bill calls for moving to a cloud-based online system that "provides for rapid provisioning of additional data processing when necessary."

Lawmakers acted after the state’s CONNECT online system largely crashed last spring when it became overwhelmed with unemployment claims during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. DeSantis described the system as a "jalopy," as the state scrambled to process claims from people who had lost jobs as businesses were forced to shut down or dramatically scale back because of the pandemic.

Lawmakers also overwhelmingly passed the bill signed Friday that will create a state regulatory framework for the sale of electronic cigarettes. Among other things, the bill (SB 1080), which will take effect Oct. 1, also will raise the state’s legal age to vape and smoke tobacco to 21, a threshold already established in federal law. 

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House sponsor Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, said before the bill passed that it is aimed at preventing minors from using electronic cigarettes.

"This bill is necessary to stop youth vaping," Toledo said.

But it drew opposition from prominent health groups, in part because it will prevent local regulations on such things as the marketing and sale of vaping products and tobacco. Earlier Friday, groups including the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association issued a statement urging DeSantis to veto the bill.

"By blocking the power of elected officials at the local level to protect kids --- and failing to  take any meaningful action at the state level --- we risk another generation addicted to deadly tobacco products and the illness and premature death that come as a result," the statement said. 

Also controversial was a bill signed Friday that will place a $3,000 cap on contributions to political committees trying to put initiatives on the ballot. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the bill (SB 1890) after deep-pocketed people and organizations have largely financed drives to pass constitutional amendments on issues such as legalizing medical marijuana and increasing the minimum wage.

House sponsor Bobby Payne, R-Palatka, said during a debate before the bill passed that the Constitution is the state’s "fundamental document" and that many of the changes that have been made could have been handled in statutes. The Legislature can more easily change statutes to address "circumstances, knowledge improvement, demographic changes (and) policy preferences," he said. 

But opponents said the contribution cap will make it almost impossible to put initiatives on the ballot because of the high costs of collecting petition signatures. Also, they said people have needed to propose constitutional amendments because the Legislature has not not responded to the wishes of the public on issues. 

"This shameful effort is solely intended to diminish Floridians’ right to have a say in how they wish to be governed," the Senate Democratic caucus said in a statement Friday evening. "The citizens’ initiative process is a last resort for the people to demand a change in course when the government fails to listen --- yet it has been under attack by tone-deaf Republican lawmakers for years in their quest for omnipotence."

Under the bill, contributions to political committees backing initiatives will be limited to $3,000 until the point when initiatives have met requirements to get on the ballot. After that point, contributions will not face a cap.