fresh voices from the front lines of change







With Isaiah J. Poole

When the Speak Out for Good Jobs Now Tour rolls into Miami on Saturday, it will be in a state where bad economic conditions are being made more harsh by a series of conservative policy actions.

“Florida workers have fared worse than the nation as a whole in terms of wages, benefits and employment levels,” concludes a recent report by Demos and the Florida International University Research Institute on Social & Economic Policy. At 11.5 percent in 2010, unemployment was at its highest rate in 30 years. In the Miami metropolitan area, the unemployment rate in May was 13.7 percent, having risen sharply from the beginning of the year.

To make the dire situation even worse, Governor Rick Scott has implemented a series of austerity measures that reduced taxes at the cost of government and service jobs, and unemployment benefits. He and the Republican-controlled legislature cut $3 billion from spending on entitlement programs, social services, public-employee pensions and schools. Tuition at state universities were increased by $42 million. Scott also signed House Bill 7005 into law, which reduced the maximum number of weeks someone is able to receive state unemployment benefits from 26 weeks to 23 weeks. Benefits would be cut as the unemployment rate declines, and if somehow the state manages to lower its unemployment rate to 5 percent, then an unemployed person will only receive a maximum of 12 weeks of unemployment benefits.

Also, unemployed or needy Floridians who apply for public assistance, unemployment benefits, Medicare, or welfare must submit and pass drug testing to be eligible. This comes months after Gov. Scott’s decision to sign a bill into law that randomly drug tests state employees, the only state to have this requirement. Critics questioned the drug testing requirement because of Scott’s connection with Solantic, an urgent care chain he co-founded that has drug testing as a significant share of its business.

Scott was bent on lowering taxes for the wealthy at all costs, asking the legislature for $459 million in corporate tax cuts and $508 million in property tax cuts. He did not get all the tax cuts he wanted, but the ones he did get, combined with his refusal to ask the wealthy to share the sacrifices needed to balance the state’s budget, came with high costs. Just one such cost: 130 jobs lost from St. Johns River Water Management, an entity tasked with protecting the state’s water resources, will be eliminated in an effort to shave $30 million from the budget and meet Scott’s and the Florida Legislature’s new strategies.

In terms of building the green economy of the future, Florida under conservative governance is failing. It ranks 49th in terms of how ‘green’ its economy is, according to a Brookings Institution study.. Green jobs account for only 1.4 percent of the economy. Although the number of jobs increased between 2003-2010, the rate is still only half the national average. Plus, in February Scott turned down more than $2 billion in federal money to establish a high speed rail linking Tampa and Orlando. Florida Rep. John Mica, a Republican who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said it "defied logic" that Scott would turn down the money and the thousands of jobs it would have created at a time when the unemployment rate in Florida is hovering around 12 percent.

Add to that not-so-surprising indications that Florida seniors are delaying their retirement, which is bad news for young people and recent college graduates who will be crowded out by seniors clinging to the job market for survival. An AARP survey in January found 44 percent of Floridians over 50 said that if the economy fails to improve this year, they will delay their retirement.

State employees have also made a trip to the chopping block. Scott signed a budget that eliminates almost 4,500 state jobs, and there will be thousands more lost at the state and local level in the months ahead. Government employment in the state in June was down 41,500 from what it was a year earlier. Scott Brown, chief economist with Raymond James Financial in St. Petersburg, told the St. Petersburg Times that the government layoffs are "a pretty significant drag on the economy."

In the midst of all the hardships, high unemployment, and moves for austerity, the campaign coffers of Scott and his fellow conservatives have not been feeling the pinch. The state Republican party received a record $3.4 million in donations between April 1 and June 30. That is the highest amount raised for an off-election year since 1997. That money largely came from electric utilities, health care, and insurance corporations.

Obviously, the corporate class that bankrolled the complete conservative domination of Florida’s politics likes what it sees. But the stories on the Speakout tour page from Floridians say this is not at all working for people struggling to get into or stay in the middle class.

A woman identified as Virginia Viel, who used to work at a travel agency before its business collapsed in the wake of recession wrote, "I have sent out over 500 resumes without hardly any response, I have a BA in Communications, over 10 years of working experience. I was offered three months ago a part-time job at 9.50 an hour with no benefits and no advancement. I am single and living with my aunt, needless to say I do not have a savings account, credit cards, health insurance, retirement plan. I had to sell my car when I was working because I could not afford the payments, and insurance, I had to go into savings when I working and laid off. I am angry and depressed how can this be allowed to happen in this country. Corporate America has taken their employees and made us working slaves and our government has allowed corporations to make us working welfare."

There are thousands of stories like this one among the nearly 1 million people unemployed in Florida. They, and the 24 million unemployed and underemployed people nationwide, need President Obama and the Congress to support a jobs agenda. This week, the legislative staff of Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., conferred with activists to fine tune the congressman’s Humphrey-Hawkins full employment bill. The goal is to make that bill part of a national grassroots jobs movement that would say no to Rick Scott’s job-killing and hope-killing austerity policies and yes to rebuilding Florida’s, and the nation’s, economy for middle-class prosperity. While that legislation is being refined, it is not too soon to send Scott and the right-wing austerity mongers a very firm message.

The Speakout For Good Jobs Now Miami event is 2 p.m. Saturday at the Miami Dade College, North Campus, Lehman Theater in the Arts Complex.

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