TALLAHASSEE -- The Department of Economic Opportunity is one of the most critical agencies in Gov. Rick Scott’s administration, and it has run through four directors — two permanent, two interim — since it launched 16 months ago.
After the fleeting tenures of three bureaucrats and a banker, Scott’s handpicked director, Jesse Panuccio, began his term as the agency’s fifth director three weeks ago.
Panuccio, a 32-year-old attorney, is an outside-the-box choice for jobs chief. He graduated from Harvard Law School in 2006 and has been on Scott’s legal team since 2011, becoming the governor’s chief litigant last year.
After defending some of Scott’s most controversial laws in the courtroom, Panuccio faces the crucial task of executing the governor’s job-creation strategy from the state’s official boardroom.
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“I chose Jesse for three reasons,” Scott said in a statement. “He is a problem solver, he is a skilled manager of people and he is experienced at holding people and organizations accountable.”
After graduating from Harvard Law, Panuccio clerked for a federal judge and then joined a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. The New Jersey native said he took the Florida Bar Exam after spending much of his childhood vacationing in the Sunshine State, and was drawn to Scott’s campaign message in 2010. He left Washington and joined the governor’s transition team as deputy general counsel in January 2011.
Throughout Panuccio’s brief professional career, he has fought legal battles in support of conservative causes ranging from gun rights to traditional marriage to state’s rights. His new position will require a full embrace of Scott’s conservative job-creation agenda: less regulation, taxation and litigation.
“My overall view is that the economy, the free market flourishes when government gets out of the way,” he said.
The Department of Economic Opportunity, or DEO, is 1,600-person agency responsible for overseeing many of the state’s economic development initiatives. Created by Scott in 2011, DEO runs Florida’s unemployment compensation system, collaborates job training efforts with regional workforce boards and oversees business incentives programs. As the $140,000-a-year director, Panuccio leads efforts to coordinate local and regional job-creation efforts, and implement an overarching economic development vision for the future.
He shares Scott’s small-government approach to creating jobs, and embraces using taxpayer incentives to draw companies to Florida.
“I do think incentives, especially in a recessionary period like this, are a targeted way of reducing taxation and enhancing the business climate for competitive projects,” he said. “It is a reality right now that we’re competing with other states and other countries for these companies.”
So far, Scott’s approach on jobs has had mixed results. Florida’s economy has improved in the last two years with a rapid decline in unemployment, but job growth is considerably slower than the national pace and wages continue to lag.
Meanwhile, DEO has come under fire — and a federal probe — for restricting access to unemployment compensation benefits, making Florida one of the least generous states in the nation for those who are eligible for aid.