Floridians should be able to trust that state senators will ask tough questions when a top state bureaucrat denies for months that his agency's botched computer system is delaying benefits for thousands of jobless Floridians. But instead in Tallahassee, senators are blithely engaging in revisionist history, casting the barely repentant head of Florida's Department of Economic Opportunity as some agent extraordinaire as he undergoes the confirmation process. Lawmakers who like to trumpet accountability in government need to practice it themselves.
Two Senate committee hearings in the past week have been a reminder of how reality can get twisted in the state Capitol. DEO executive director Jesse Panuccio, 33, has sailed through two committee confirmation hearings without a single negative vote. Senators have commiserated on how tough it is to launch major computer systems. But where they're wrong is in praising him for "taking ownership early on" of the problems plaguing the $63 million CONNECT computer system.
In November, Panuccio stood before some of these same senators and discounted numerous media reports from across the state that his agency's CONNECT system, then one month old, was making it impossible for jobless Floridans to apply for aid, much less actually receive the weekly payments they were due. And for two more months after that, Panuccio allowed a backlog of applications to grow to 30,000 before implementing extraordinary measures to get Floridians the money they were due — and then only after the U.S. Labor Department came to Tallahassee at the request of U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla.
State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, glibly gave a hint Monday as to how this denial has taken root, reminding his colleagues on the Commerce and Tourism Committee that Panuccio had taken the time to meet with each one of them. Apparently such hobnobbing is more important to keeping a $141,000 taxpayer-funded job than ineffective leadership that left thousands of Floridians without even a financial shoestring to live on.
And last week, the anticipated next Senate president, Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, even tried to score partisan political points, boasting that Panuccio could teach Washington a thing or two about taking responsibility — in denial that it took Washington to come to Tallahassee to actually get the job done. He pledged to ensure that Panuccio receives a confirmation floor vote this year lest he automatically lose his job otherwise. Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, failed to schedule one last year.
Latvala, so far, is mum on where he stands and even took a walk from one of Panuccio's first committee stops to avoid casting a vote. But political maneuvering shouldn't be the fail-safe here. Senators in Panuccio's last two committee stops need to do their job and demand a public explanation from the bureaucrat about why it took three months to implement emergency measures to get unemployment compensation to Floridians. And then they need to ask why they should have any confidence he won't make a similar bad decision again.
Florida's Republican-led Legislature talks a lot about bringing more accountability to state government. They should practice what they preach.