Department of Economic Opportunity head Jesse Panuccio faced a battery of pointed questions and criticism over an executive branch battle with a labor union and the state’s beleaguered unemployment system in a Wednesday meeting of a Senate budget panel.
Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Tourism, Transportation and Economic Development Chairman Jack Latvala had originally requested the presence of Enterprise Florida CEO Bill Johnson, who was out of state drumming up business in New York.
Panuccio gave a presentation that explained recent reports about discrepancies in state jobless claims were due mainly to an improving economy.
Rich Templin, legislative and political director for the AFL-CIO, told the panel that isn’t so.
“You’re being told that it was because the change in the employment situation in the state and the growing economy. If you look at how we have grown in that trust fund and the drop in the unemployment rate, you cannot statistically account for what happened,” said Templin, a labor lobbyist known for impassioned testimony.
“What is happening is that benefits are no longer going out the door. People that should qualify are not qualifying and they are receiving no benefits.”
Templin went on to say CONNECT, the state’s new online jobless claims system instituted in August 2011, has contributed to the problem.
“One thing that we are finding, both anecdotally and in looking at the evidence, is that CONNECT has been an absolute disaster for working people,” said Templin. “Between 2010 and 2014, the number of claimants who were disqualified for reasons not related to their separation from the job increased by more than 180 percent.”
Asked whether “a lack of connectedness” to claimants on the part of the department, Templin replied, “There has to be something else going on there.”
Panuccio did not take the criticism lightly.
In another committee, the DEO chief said, “I used the word ‘specious,’ but he didn’t like that,” referring to Templin.
“I would call most of the aggregate stuff ‘statistical alchemy.’ These are not valid claims,” said Panuccio.
“We at the department have to deal with reality and what’s actually going on. We can’t make allegations. That’s what a lot of this is — a lot of it is not rooted in fact,” he inveighed, calling the basis of Templin’s charges of DEO mismanagement “bogus” and “made up.”
“It’s a policy push. It is not really about the system, it’s not about what we’re doing at the department. The AFL-CIO does not like the law we have in place on unemployment of this state, but that law was passed by a majority of this Legislature,” said Panuccio.
“The AFL-CIO does not want to admit that we have a nation-leading turnaround… We have less claims because we are getting people back to work faster than other states, so that would be my general response,” said Panuccio, echoing a campaign slogan of Gov. Rick Scott.
Democratic Vice Chair state Sen. Jeff Clemens rebuked Panuccio for dismissing the validity of Templin’s facts. Then came chairman Jack Latvala’s comments.
“Mr. Panuccio, I’d like to add my voice to the objection to your attitude toward the last witness,” said Latvala. “He’s got the same right to get up in front of the public and use statistics that you have. To characterize those in the way you have is very unfortunate.”
“I frankly don’t like your attitude,” Latvala continued. “I think there’s an arrogance in the way you present this that [belies] a sense of entitlement, and I just think it’s wrong.”
Panuccio repeated his view that Templin was using errant facts, after which the dispute more or less came to a natural break.
Latvala told Panuccio to give the planned second part of his presentation at the committee’s next meeting, set for October 20.
As Panuccio will be joined by Bill Johnson for a discussion on economic incentives — an issue on which Latvala and state Sen. Nancy Detert have made national headlines through their dissent to Scott administration policies — it promises to be no less adversarial.