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House approves new IT agency, but does it address CONNECT mess?

In early January, as the state’s new $63 million unemployment website continued to struggle to pay claims on time, state lawmakers considered taking action.

But as the second week in this year’s 60-day legislative session comes to an end, lawmakers are backing away from using their oversight powers to intervene with how Florida’s Department of Economic Opportunity is managing the CONNECT project.

In fact, now it appears that they are instead endorsing the agency’s handling of the crisis. On Wednesday, a Senate appropriations committee voted 11-0 to support the confirmation of the DEO’s executive director, Jesse Panuccio.

“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 chair, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando to Panuccio, who must clear two more senate committees and a floor vote to keep his $141,000 job.

No state lawmakers have asked to study the spending on the project or why it failed. They haven’t filed any bills that would address a requirement that they passed in 2011 forcing claimants to apply for weekly benefits online -- which federal officials flagged last year as unconstitutional.

One bill, SB 7058, does address another requirement passed in 2011 that was also flagged by federal officials: a required initial skills review test that takes as long as 45 minutes to complete. Under the bill, the test would become voluntary. That bill passed the Senate’s Commerce and Tourism board on March 3 with a 10-0 vote, but has yet to be picked up in the House.

The one piece of legislation that both chambers and parties support as an answer to managing complicated technology projects is a bill that creates an entirely new agency.

On Wednesday, the Florida House passed HB 7073 by a 116-0 vote that would create an agency overseeing technology projects of more than $25 million. It would consolidate data centers into one, while creating a CIO position that is appointed by the governor, and confirmed by the Senate. The agency would cost $5 million this year with $2.9 million every year after. It would employ 25 positions and be housed under the Department of Management Services, but would answer directly to the governor.

A companion bill, SB 928, sponsored by Sen. Jeremy Ring, R-Margate, has strong support in the Senate. And both bills have bipartisan support.

But would it make the state any better managing massive IT projects like the CONNECT website?

“I can’t guarantee anything,” said Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. “What I do know is that the state of Florida is the only state in America that doesn’t have a chief information officer. It’s time we have one. It’s time that we have a little bit more organized, centralized, focused IT strategy and IT policy in this state of Florida.”

Panuccio told reporters after his partial confirmation that as of Feb. 28, no major glitches remain with the CONNECT system. The DEO fined Deloitte more than $700,000, but halted the fines last month.

But for claimants like Bradford Gonzalez, problems remain. The 63-year-old Deltona resident has been jobless since December, but has been unable to get his claims from CONNECT. He said he was disappointed that lawmakers aren’t addressing the issue.

“These companies get millions of dollars from the state, and that’s what counts,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a money machine where the corporations are making money off us. It’s a scam meant to discourage people like myself to pursue the benefits I’m entitled to.”