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Tuesday, Sep 02, 2014
AP Florida

Economic agency chief fights to keep post


Published:

TALLAHASSEE — The Senate panel charged with writing that chamber’s transportation and economic development budget is proposing no funding for the state’s legal fight with the U.S. Department of Labor over its unemployment compensation system.

The governor and Department of Economic Opportunity requested $400,000 to continue the legal battle over “allegations of discrimination” made by the federal agency. The department said in an April 2013 determination that the program, which was revamped in 2011, is at odds with federal discrimination laws.

Jesse Panuccio, the agency’s executive director, said he thought the money should be in the budget, but there is no ongoing litigation.

“I do think it’s still needed just as a precaution,” Panuccio said. “But if necessary, we will defend the agency.”

His comments came after a meeting of the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee, a separate panel that unanimously recommended Panuccio be confirmed for the post he currently holds. He was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott in December 2012, but he’s not yet been confirmed by the full Senate.

After failing to secure confirmation last year, Panuccio will be replaced if he doesn’t get approval by the Senate this session. He received unanimous votes in his early hearings, and has two more committee stops before going before the full Senate.

The proposed Senate spending plan also doesn’t include money for controversial skills reviews that were created as part of the 2011 overhaul. Those 45-question “Initial Skills Reviews” have caused benefit delays and denials for more than 120,000 people since August 2011.

State Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, helped to create the assessments in 2011, but has become a vocal critic because they aren’t working the way she anticipated. She has filed legislation making the reviews voluntary, which the department has supported.

She leads the panel that gave Panuccio his second unanimous vote. She praised him for “taking ownership” of the unemployment compensation problems.

The governor and Department of Economic Opportunity both requested $2 million as a “placeholder pending the department’s evaluation of the return on investment” of the program.

Overall, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Tourism and Economic Development rolled out an $11.7 billion budget to pay for the Department of State, Department of Transportation, Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the governor’s office, Department of Economic Opportunity and the Department of Military Affairs.

That’s $260 million more than Gov. Rick Scott’s budget request, and roughly $16 million less than the collective budget request for the departments and agencies.

The Senate plan includes some money for cultural and museum grants that’s not included in Scott’s proposed budget or requested by departments. It’s the sort of funding that can often get tagged as budget “pork.”

The Senate plan requests $3.2 million for “cultural and museum grants” and $5.1 million for “cultural facilities grants” not requested by the governor or agencies. The second pot of money includes $500,000 each for the Naples Botanical Garden Inc. and Opera Naples Inc.

On the election front, the Senate’s plan includes $2.6 million to reimburse local election officials for special elections. The governor and Department of State each requested $500,000 for reimbursements.

There was a high-profile special state House election in Pasco County, a U.S. House special election in the Pinellas County area, and another U.S. House special election is needed to replace Trey Radel, the Fort Myers Republican who resigned from Congress after pleading guilty to a cocaine charge.

The biggest portion of this budget is the Department of Transportation’s work plan, which includes road projects, aviation grants and interstate construction, among other projects. All parties have agreed to fully fund the roughly $8.5 billion plan.

Matt.Dixon@naplesnews.com

(352) 233-0777

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