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Saturday, February 11, 2017

Florida's chief financial officer steps down from cabinet post

Posted By on Sat, Feb 11, 2017 at 7:09 AM

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State Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater announced Friday he will leave his elected position for a job at Florida Atlantic University after the upcoming legislative session.

Gov. Rick Scott will name a replacement for Atwater, who has held the Cabinet post since getting elected in 2010. The CFO position will be on the ballot again in 2018.

Atwater, a former Senate president whose political future has long been the subject of speculation, unsuccessfully sought to become Florida Atlantic president three years ago. He will serve as a vice president at the Boca Raton school managing finances and economic development.

"While I would have preferred to embrace this opportunity at a later date, the timing of crucial university initiatives warranted an accelerated transition," the North Palm Beach Republican said in a statement.

"As a parent of FAU graduates, I cannot think of a better place to begin the next phase of my career," Atwater added in a release from the university.

Atwater, who had considered a U.S. Senate run in 2016, is in his second term as CFO and would be prevented from seeking reelection next year due to term limits.

Atwater's statewide post pays $128,972 a year. At FAU, he will replace Dorothy Russell, who retired in January after a decade at the university and was paid nearly $250,000 last year.

The 60-day legislative session begins March 7. Atwater, 58, noted in the statement Friday that leaving after the session will give Scott "sufficient time" to name a replacement to serve out the remainder of Atwater's term.

Scott, in a statement praising Atwater, said he would begin the process of making an appointment.

"I got to know CFO Jeff Atwater well in 2010 on the campaign trail, and like me, he has been laser-focused on keeping the cost of living low for all Floridians," Scott said in his statement. "I am proud that the state has paid down over $7.6 billion in debt since 2011 and CFO Atwater has aggressively helped us achieve that goal. He has fought to reduce burdensome regulations that hinder job growth, protect families from financial fraud and has traveled the state to return more than $1 billion in unclaimed property to its rightful owners."

Atwater, a banker who started his political career on the North Palm Beach Village Council in 1993, was elected to the state House in 2000 and moved to the Senate in 2002. He served as Senate president for the 2009 and 2010 sessions.

Current Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, issued a statement Friday calling Atwater "one of the leading fixtures in Florida government for the last 15 years."

"When I was elected to the Senate in 2009, we were in the middle of the recession and working to balance a budget, while dealing with a multibillion-dollar shortfall," Negron said. "I will always remember CFO Atwater's strong and determined leadership during this extremely trying time. I know he will serve FAU with the same tenacity."

As chief financial officer, Atwater teamed with Scott in 2012 to push legislation intended to reform the personal-injury protection portion of auto insurance coverage. However, the two also clashed in 2015 over the abrupt departure of Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, whose exit was orchestrated by the governor's office.

Atwater was elected chief financial officer with 57 percent of the vote in 2010, and he got 59 percent when he was re-elected four years later.

Scott's decision about appointing a replacement for Atwater could play a critical role in the 2018 contest for the Cabinet seat. The appointee could have a leg up in running for a full term in the job.

Nobody has opened a campaign account to run for the office in 2018, according to the state Division of Elections website. However, the names of a number of potential appointees have already been floated.

Those names include Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, who Scott appointed to his current post after Jennifer Carroll was asked to leave the administration in 2013. Other names include former state Rep. Tom Grady and state Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, Lizbeth Benacquisto of Fort Myers and Jack Latvala of Clearwater.

Latvala has been an ally of Scott on economic incentives and recently floated a potential candidacy for governor in 2018.

Grady, a Naples neighbor of Scott, is currently vying to become president of Florida Gulf Coast University. He has been appointed in the past by the governor to the State Board of Education and to lead the Office of Financial Regulation.

At FAU, Atwater will report to President John Kelly, who landed the job Atwater briefly pursued in January 2014.

"When I approached Jeff about joining us here, it was immediately obvious he cares passionately about FAU," Kelly said in a prepared statement. "There is no better person to help guide this university's finances and corporate relationships as we continue with unbridled ambition to make FAU America's fastest improving university."

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