Tampa Dems blast Gov. Scott on botched unemployment website

The problems with the state of Florida's troubled CONNECT website have been well chronicled in recent months. The $63 million site established for unemployed Floridians to sign up for benefits has had numerous technical glitches, leaving thousands of those without work having to go weeks or months worrying about how to pay for their basic necessities as they search for a new job. It's a tailor-made issue for Democrats to seize upon, which is why the group Floridians For All called for the news conference in Tampa this morning. 

Sean Shaw is running in House District 61, one of four Democrats vying to succeed Representative Betty Reed, who is term-limited out this year. Shaw is the state's former insurance consumer advocate, has raised more money than his opponents, and has earned some key endorsements well ahead of his August primary. He joined Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione and Army reservist Albert Harris for a news conference this morning in front of the Tampa office of Unemployment Compensation Division on North Florida Avenue — though he was 15 minutes late to the event.

He then launched into an attack on the governor, claiming that "he campaigned to bring in 1.7 million jobs in 7 years. He's not even halfway there after three years in office."

That was a reference to Scott's "7-7-7" campaign promise of 2010, when he promised to bring 700,000  jobs to the state in seven years time. (This original post reported incorrectly that Shaw said "1 million jobs." A spokesperson for Florida For All, Ana Tinsely, notes that Scott originally was promoting 1.7 million jobs that he would create). 

Shaw then segued into how Scott has put his interests and the interests of "his special interest donors" above the needs of regular Floridians, saying that "time and time again we have seen examples of pay to play governing as reported in the news. He's pulled in hundreds of millions of dollars in campaign contributions from powerful special interests in the state, many of them have been rewarded with hundreds of millions of dollars in state contracts," referring to donors such as Mike Fernandez, the South Florida healthcare executive and co-finance chairman of the governor's 2014 re-election campaign.

As Shaw noted, while Fernandez has contributed over $1 million to Scott's re-election campaign, his companies have won several long-term contracts with the state's Medicaid program. But it would be more accurate to note that Scott has received "millions" in campaign contributions, not "hundreds of millions." 

(Florida For All' Tinsly, later informed CL that there was typo in the language provided to Shaw, and in fact he intended to say "tens of millions.")

But there's no doubt that the CONNECT website has hurt many Floridians, such as Army Reservist Albert Harris.

Harris had been serving on active duty in Guantanamo Bay for nine months before returning to Tampa last August, when he applied for unemployment benefits. He was told that the CONNECT website was under construction, so he attempted to sign up when the site went live in October. But nothing happened for a few weeks after he applied, causing him to call in to determine the problem. He was informed that a "glitch" in the system had disqualified his claim — and that a disqualification had carried over from a previous unemployment claim to his new one. He was told the only way to remove that old disqualification would be manually.

But with thousands of cases to contend with, Harris ended up waiting more than three months before he ultimately received his benefits. He said during that time he called operators with CONNECT as many as 150 times, though less than a quarter of those calls were answered by a live human being.

Tampa City Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said that despite the decreasing numbers, unemployment remains a major problem in the state. She said that 1,031 people attended a recent job fair she hosted at MOSI. "These are pharmacists, engineers and these are people who have advanced degrees."

Montelione added that the City Council is "very tough" with the city's purchasing department to make sure that there's a fair process for companies when a contract goes out to bid, to ensure that the taxpayer isn't exploited. But she said that doesn't appear to be the case in the governor's office.

"Having trust and  having the taxpayer know that you're serving them in the best possible way, is what we should be striving for and I don't think that our folks in Tallahassee, especially Rick Scott, have been doing a good job in instilling confidence for the taxpayer that their money is being well spent."

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