The debate about the roles of the private and public sectors in economic development often misses the point it’s less about the scope and limit of the sectors’ respective roles and more about the synergies necessary to create and sustain economic growth.
“I think what has driven that (Florida’s economic recovery) comes from the private sector,” says Jesse Panuccio, executive director of the state Department of Economic Opportunity (DEO) in Tallahassee. “What helps the private sector grow is policy, the policies that government puts in place.”
Panuccio’s department has a myriad of responsibilities, including administration of Florida’s unemployment compensation program, and he is ready to talk at length about any of them. But, his passion clearly is the DEO’s economic development responsibilities.
“The areas that I focus on are, number one, taxation policy. I think that’s the single-most important issue for growth,” he says. “Second will be regulatory policies, making sure that agencies are going about the work of protecting public health, safety and welfare, but doing so in a way that is not overly burdensome and with an attitude that views businesses and families as partners in economic growth.”
Also high on his list are smart budgeting, acknowledging that often means “difficult choices” in tough economic times, and investment in infrastructure, which he terms “critical.” He had special praise for his boss, Gov. Rick Scott, and the Legislature for investing in ports so that Florida is ready for the Panama Canal expansion.
A recent DEO report noted that Florida ranks sixth nationally in origin of exports, and Panuccio believes Florida can be an even bigger force in exporting.
After noting Florida’s ideal location on trade routes, he said, “I think we are trying to focus on growing industries that are critical to trade. We’ve put a lot of emphasis on growth in logistics, on growth in aerospace, on growth in the life sciences.”
He said Florida is trying to create relationships among state and local agencies and business groups to help them grow economic development opportunities. To enhance capabilities in areas still growing their programs, the DEO and other state agencies are increasingly focusing on county commissions and city councils to help them better “understand the competitive nature of business recruitment in the country and in the world these days.”
Panuccio cites the Super Region as an example of an area at a high level of economic development readiness.
“When I get asked where are we seeing growth that we have in the state … one of the responses I often give is ÔLook at the I-4 Corridor from Orlando to Tampa.’ There is incredible economic growth. You have local officials who are very much focused on a long-term vision.”
At age 33 and directing a large state agency, Panuccio is viewed as a rising political star in the state – especially after he turned what could have been a career-damaging crisis into a personal triumph. Formerly counsel to Scott, he was nominated by the governor to the DEO post in late 2012, and he began his service there in early 2013.
Before the year was out, he found himself embroiled in a controversy over problems with CONNECT, a web portal allowing Floridians to apply for unemployment benefits online. As problems with the site and criticism mounted, Panuccio’s final Senate confirmation to his post was delayed. By this past spring, the problems appeared to be corrected, and he was easily confirmed with bipartisan support. Panuccio is quick to credit others (including, with great regularity, Scott), and his reflections on his confirmation are no exception.
“I said during the confirmation process, when you run a large organization … crises and challenges are inevitable. The real question is how you respond to them,” he said. “That’s really a credit to the people that work here. I get to be up at the hearing and in the newspapers, but the real work gets done by people working very long nights and weekends and through the holidays when there’s a crisis.”