By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The head of the agency that oversaw the state’s bungled unemployment benefits website is on his way to securing his confirmation in the Florida Senate to retain his post.
Jesse Panuccio, the executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, has so far received unanimous votes from early hearings and has to face about two more panels before his confirmation gets a vote from the full senate.
Panuccio was unable to secure a confirmation last year, so this year is pivotal for him. If he doesn’t get approved by the Senate during this legislative session he will need to be replaced.
It’s an interesting time for Panuccio to face lawmakers. His agency—particular its new $63 million unemployment benefits website—has been in the news a lot. The website has faced many problems including technical problems that delayed payments to thousands of jobless Floridians.
The problems have even caught the attention of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, who successfully appealed to federal officials to intervene.
Panuccio reiterated to the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee much of what he told a prior committee last week – that he recognized problems with the new unemployment system, CONNECT, after DEO switched to the system in October and that most of the technical glitches that resulted in delays in benefits payments for thousands of out of work Floridians have been fixed.
“In sum, while the launch of CONNECT was not as smooth as we had hoped for, the agency has been able to recover in a few months and service from a claimant perspective is now better than it was prior to CONNECT’s launch,” Panuccio said.
He noted that jobless claims in “adjudication” – a process to determine whether flagged claims are valid – have dropped from 50,000 in the aftermath of the switch to about 3,000 now. But, as Panuccio mentioned last week, 88,000 Floridians on extended federal unemployment benefits were dropped from the rolls in January when Congress passed a budget deal that failed to extend the benefits for the long-term unemployed, lightening the load of the new system.
Some members of the panel noted the problems with CONNECT but most said he had worked to fix them, as Panuccio received a unanimous vote for confirmation.
Troubles with the CONNECT website have been a public relations nightmare for the agency, as well as a burden to the many jobless Floridians who spent the holidays without any financial assistance late last year.
Coupled with federal cuts to long-term federal unemployment benefits, many vulnerable Floridians have hit hard times because of the glitches in the website, which was created by consulting company Deloitte.
Once issues with the website reached the three month mark, state officials began to impose financial penalties on Deloitte. Those penalties, however, didn’t usher in any major improvements quickly. Eventually, federal officials from the U.S. Labor had to intervene.
Despite all this, though, Pannuccio’s confirmation appears to be going smoothly, so far.
If Wednesday is any indication, however, Panuccio will easily survive a crisis that required federal intervention to unite desperate Floridians with the money they were owed.
“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,” said the committee chairman, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who will become Senate president later this year. “I think what helps me is when this issue happened with the website, unlike some other areas in the state and Washington that just pointed fingers . . . we took ownership of it and we fixed it. And we addressed it. And I think that that, in my opinion, is leadership.”
Gardiner can say what he wants, but facts should still matter in the Senate. In his justification for supporting Panuccio, they clearly don’t.
Let’s take his point that “when this issue happened . . . we took ownership of it and we fixed it.”
Despite reports from around the state that the website was failing as soon as it launched Oct. 15, Panuccio and other top DEO officials declared victory, email records show.
Even though, Panuccio has the support of lawmakers like Gardiner, as the Times/Herald notes, some other powerful lawmakers aren’t lining up to support him.
However, according to The Times/Herald, “even though Panuccio has won unanimous support so far, his confirmation is no sure thing.”
Last year, he passed the committee confirmation process, only never to come up on the floor for a vote. The senator who comes up with that list, as chair of the ethics and elections committee, is Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater.
Latvala stepped out last week when the Senate’s appropriations subcommittee on transportation, tourism and economic development approved Panuccio’s first confirmation, and didn’t vote. His committee is the last one Panuccio must clear.
He wouldn’t say on Monday which way he would vote on the confirmation.
“We’ll just have to see,” Latvala said.
Sen. Nelson has continued to call on federal officials for an investigation of what caused the website’s troubles in the first place.