State Politics

Florida Senate grills jobs chief on treatment of state’s jobless

Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, speaks at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 15, 2015. In an appearance before a state Senate budget committee Wednesday he faced tough questions about problems in paying unemployment benefits.
Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, speaks at Cape Canaveral on Sept. 15, 2015. In an appearance before a state Senate budget committee Wednesday he faced tough questions about problems in paying unemployment benefits. AP

Gov. Rick Scott’s jobs expert was blasted in the Senate on Wednesday for “arrogance” as he faced new criticism for problems with the state’s online system to file for unemployment benefit claims.

Executive director Jesse Panuccio of the state Department of Economic Opportunity never got to ask a Senate budget panel for $3.5 million to combat benefits fraud by creating a new police unit, an idea that received a chilly reception in the House a day earlier.

Instead, the panel’s chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, took one of Scott’s favorite agency heads to the woodshed, telling him: “I frankly don’t like your attitude.”

It’s the latest sign of hostility between Scott and senators, indicating that Panuccio could face difficulty winning Senate confirmation in the 2016 session that begins next January.

If he’s not confirmed, he’ll lose his $141,000-a-year job.

Panuccio’s appearance began predictably as he emphasized Scott’s familiar talking points: The economy is improving, the number of jobs is growing, the number of unemployed has fallen to 507,000 statewide and as a result, fewer people are filing for jobless benefits.

That created the opening for senators to cite persistent complaints from constituents who can’t file for unemployment because of glitches with CONNECT, DEO’s $77 million computerized system for filing claims.

“They can’t get into the system. Therefore they don’t get paid. Therefore the statistics look good,” said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. “I just want the system to work.”

Two days earlier, Panuccio told another Senate committee that the percentage of people with valid benefits claims who get their first check within two weeks has fallen to 70 percent, with the rest waiting up to a month.

At Wednesday’s tense hearing, lobbyist Rich Templin of the Florida AFL-CIO said state laws pose major hurdles that prevent people from getting the maximum 14 weeks of benefits.

Templin said it’s “by design” that Florida ranks last in the U.S. in paying claims to only 12 percent of its jobless, a figure from the National Employment Law Project.

Panuccio called the statistics “made up” and “specious” and suggested that the left-leaning AFL-CIO has a political motive in refusing to accept that Scott’s policies have improved Florida’s economy.

“I do want to rebut bad facts,” Panuccio told senators.

Latvala defended the AFL-CIO lobbyist’s “courage” in speaking out as he tore into Panuccio.

“You know, I frankly don’t like your attitude. I think there’s an arrogance in the way you present this — That’s a sense of entitlement, and I just think it’s wrong,” Latvala said. “We’re here to serve the people.”

He said if Templin and others have “the courage to come up here and speak their mind, then I just don’t think they should be put down the way you put Mr. Templin down, and I object to that.”

Six of the nine members of Latvala’s committee aimed critical or pointed questions at Panuccio, a Harvard-educated lawyer who was Scott’s legal adviser before he took over DEO in 2013.

Besides Latvala and Sachs, the other critics were Republican Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice and Democrats Jeff Clemens of Lake Worth, Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville and Geraldine Thompson of Orlando.

Others on the committee are Republicans Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Miguel Diaz de la Portilla of Miami and Dorothy Hukill of Port Orange.

Panuccio needs the support of at least five of the nine to keep his job next year.

After the meeting, Panuccio told the Herald/Times: “I try to deal in facts. I know there’s a lot of politics swirling around the Capitol right now.”

Asked if he worries he could lose his job, he said: “All I can do is do my job every day, and come and report as honestly as I can on what we do. All those things are out of my hands.”

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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