Florida lawmakers have few plans to address unemployment website crisis

In early January, as Florida’s new $63 million unemployment website continued to struggle to pay claims on time, state lawmakers considered taking action.

Now in the second week of the 60-day legislative session, lawmakers are backing away from using their oversight powers to intervene with the Department of Economic Opportunity and the CONNECT project.

Instead it appears lawmakers are endorsing the agency’s handling of the crisis. On Wednesday, a Senate appropriations committee voted 11-0 to support confirmation of Jesse Panuccio as executive director of the DEO.

“I’m not just going to support you, I’m going to do everything I can in the process to make sure you get to the end,” committee chair Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, said to Panuccio, who must clear two more Senate committees and a floor vote to keep his $141,000 job. He started the job 15 months ago after a stint as Gov. Rick Scott’s general counsel.

No lawmakers have asked to study spending on the project or why it failed. They haven’t filed any bills that would address a requirement that they passed in 2011 forcing claimants to apply for weekly benefits online — which federal officials flagged last year as unconstitutional.

SB 7058 does address another requirement passed in 2011 and also flagged by federal officials: an initial skills review test that takes as long as 45 minutes to complete. The test would become voluntary under the legislation, which passed the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism board on March 3 with a 10-0 vote, but has yet to be picked up in the House.

An idea both chambers and parties support as an answer to managing complicated technology projects is a bill that creates an entirely new agency.

On Wednesday, the Florida House unanimously passed HB 7073 to create an agency overseeing technology projects of more than $25 million. It would consolidate data centers into one, while creating a chief information officer position that is appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the Senate. The agency would cost $5 million this year with $2.9 million every year after. It would employ 25 positions and be housed under the Department of Management Services, but would answer directly to the governor.

A companion bill, SB 928, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, R-Margate, has strong support in the Senate.

Would it make the state any better at managing massive IT projects like CONNECT?

“I can’t guarantee anything,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “What I do know is that the state of Florida is the only state in America that doesn’t have a chief information officer. It’s time we have one. It’s time that we have a little bit more organized, centralized, focused IT strategy and IT policy in this state of Florida.”

Panuccio told reporters after his partial confirmation that as of Feb. 28, no major glitches remain with the CONNECT system. The DEO fined Deloitte more than $700,000, but halted the fines last month.

For claimants like Bradford Gonzalez, problems remain. The 63-year-old Deltona resident has been jobless since December, but has been unable to get his claims from CONNECT. He said he was disappointed that lawmakers aren’t addressing the issue.

“These companies get millions of dollars from the state, and that’s what counts,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a money machine where the corporations are making money off us. It’s a scam meant to discourage people like myself to pursue the benefits I’m entitled to.”