TALLAHASSEE — Florida Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater announced Friday he will resign from his Cabinet position to return to Palm Beach County and take a job as the CFO of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
His forthcoming departure — on an undetermined date after the 2017 legislative session ends May 5 — gives Republican Gov. Rick Scott the unusual opportunity to appoint Atwater's replacement. That power essentially will let the governor influence two of the four votes at state Cabinet meetings, his own and the CFO's.
Several Republicans, including state Sen. Tom Lee of Thonotosassa, already had been considering bids to succeed Atwater in 2018. Atwater's departure could mean they try to jockey for the appointment, instead.
Scott's office did not offer details Friday about who might be in the running to finish Atwater's term in office. But Scott is likely to pick a reliable GOP ally — such as Sarasota Republican Party chairman and state Rep. Joe Gruters or Manatee County developer Pat Neal.
Atwater, who is from North Palm Beach, will become FAU's vice president of strategic initiatives and CFO — where he'll "lead strategic initiatives and economic development opportunities for FAU as well as manage the university's finances and budget," FAU said.
The university's previous CFO, Dorothy Russell, retired on Jan. 31.
Atwater, a Republican, was elected Florida's CFO in 2010 and won re-election in 2014, after unsuccessfully trying to become FAU president that year. He cannot seek a third term but still has about 23 months left in office.
"This is all with mixed emotions," Atwater told the Times/Herald on Friday. "I am very excited to take my skill set to Florida Atlantic University, but this is my 17th year in Tallahassee, and it has been an honor of a lifetime to serve the people of Florida."
In a statement from his CFO office, Atwater explained the timing of his resignation: "While I would have preferred to embrace this opportunity at a later date, the timing of crucial university initiatives warranted an accelerated transition."
FAU President John Kelly said Atwater was his top choice "for this expanded CFO role," and he applauded Atwater's work in the statewide office.
Atwater's ties to the school include having had three children attend the university, and he represented FAU's three campuses when he served in the Legislature from 2000 to 2010. Atwater was Florida Senate president in his final two years.
An FAU spokesman said Atwater's university salary hasn't been determined, but state records show his predecessor, Russell, made $247,450 a year before she retired. With an "expanded" role beyond Russell's job description, Atwater's salary could likely be higher.
As Florida CFO, Atwater's salary is $128,972 a year. He reported his net worth as being $2.5 million, as of December 2015.
Scott's office said the governor was made aware of Atwater's departure before the public announcement was made midday Friday.
"The role of the CFO is incredibly important to our state, and I will begin the process to appoint someone to serve Florida families," Scott said in a statement, which also praised Atwater for being "laser-focused on keeping the cost of living low for all Floridians."
The CFO is elected by voters statewide, but because Atwater has less than 28 months left in his term, Florida law grants the governor broad authority to appoint anyone as his replacement without seeking approval from voters or the Legislature.
A replacement just has to meet the requirements spelled out in the state Constitution: The CFO must be at least 30 years old and a resident of the state for seven years.
Whoever Scott appoints will get a leg up on the 2018 CFO race and, if they choose to, have the luxury of running as a pseudo-incumbent for the open seat. (Former Yahoo executive and former Broward County state Sen. Jeremy Ring is a likely Democratic challenger.)
Lee told the Times/Herald that even before Friday's announcement, he had talked with Atwater and his staff about the position and had let other Republican leaders know of his interest in running in 2018 — but he wasn't planning on making a decision about the campaign until after session this spring. Lee lost a bid for CFO in 2006 to Democrat Alex Sink.
Besides Lee, a couple other GOP state senators said Friday they are interested in getting appointed by Scott but, when reached, hadn't yet spoken with the governor.
Jacksonville Republican Aaron Bean said he thinks he's qualified to replace Atwater. He has a degree in finance, a background in bank management and is currently a licensed insurance agent, he said.
"It's something I'm going to explore and see where it leads," Bean said.
St. Petersburg Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes, a real estate investor, said if he was asked to consider the appointment, he "would carefully consider it."
The Florida Cabinet is comprised of the CFO, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam.
The CFO serves as the state fire marshal and has oversight of several statewide agencies, including the Office of Insurance Regulation and Office of Financial Regulation — whose leaders must be approved by the governor, the CFO and at least one other Cabinet member.
Atwater has had a number of accomplishments over the last six years:
• He led efforts to put government contracts online for the public to review and track to ensure terms of deals were met. (His office earned an A rating from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.)
• He used his 150 sworn law enforcement agents to boost insurance fraud arrests 40 percent compared to past CFOs.
• He pushed the Legislature for a homeowner bill of rights that requires insurance companies to outline in writing what their rights are and the timetable that insurance companies must work within when a claim is filed.
• He cracked down on life insurance companies for sitting on billions of dollars in overdue, unpaid benefits. (He said some companies were doing little to track down families whose loved ones paid their premiums for years.)
• And he pushed the insurance commissioner to develop a stress test for property insurance companies — many far from household names — to assure they could pay out claims in the event of a catastrophic hurricane season.
Atwater, a former banker and a graduate of the University of Florida, spent much of his legislative career focused on insurance and banking issues and was not known for his work on education policy.
In 2014, Atwater said he was recruited to apply for the presidency of FAU by a firm conducting the search. He applied the same day applications were due and received high marks from the presidential search committee, which led to an interview among a handful of other semifinalists. But when it came down to the top three, Atwater's name was not on the list.
Contact Kristen M. Clark at [email protected] Follow @ByKristenMClark