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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Latvala blasts Scott aide's 'arrogance,' defends union lobbyist



Gov. Rick Scott's jobs guru, Jesse Panuccio, never got a chance Wednesday to make his pitch for $3.5 million to fight benefits fraud in the Department of Economic Opportunity. Instead, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, took the DEO chief to the woodshed, criticizing his "arrogance" toward a union lobbyist and telling Panuccio, a Scott favorite: "I frankly don't like your attitude."

It's the latest sign of open hostility between the Senate and Scott, and it's clear Panuccio could have problems winning Senate confirmation next session. If Panuccio is not confirmed, he'll lose his $141,000-a-year job -- a decision the jobs chief says is "out of my hands."

Panuccio, testifying before Latvala's Senate budget subcommittee, hit his usual points: The economy is improving, the number of jobs is growing, unemployment is declining -- and fewer Floridians are filing for unemployment benefits.

That was the opening senators were waiting for. They cited persistent complaints from constituents who can't file for unemployment because of problems with Connect, DEO's troubled online system for filing claims. Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, said of the unemployed: "They don't get paid, therefore the statistics look good. You can't get anybody on the phone. I just want the system to work."

AFL-CIO lobbyist Rich Templin cited statistics on the unemployed that Panuccio called "invalid" and suggested the left-leaning labor organization had a political agenda for refusing to acknowledge that Scott's policies have improved the economy. At that point, Latvala defended the AFL-CIO lobbyist for his "courage" and 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 has "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."

After the meeting, Panuccio told the Times/Herald: "I try to deal in facts. I know there's a lot of politics swirling around the Capitol right now." Asked if he's worried he could lose his job if the Senate refuses to confirm him in 2016, 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."

[Last modified: Wednesday, October 7, 2015 1:58pm]


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