TALLAHASSEE — If Jeff Atwater's Senate has its way, the higher office he seeks will have unprecedented power over privatized prisons, billions of dollars in purchasing authority and the power to investigate Medicaid and food-stamp fraud.
The bills to expand the post of Florida chief financial officer all come from Senate President Atwater's chamber — but that's just a coincidence, say Atwater and the senators sponsoring the legislation.
Atwater said he would have supported the proposals even if he were not running for CFO, a Cabinet-level post.
"I certainly did not suggest (to senators), 'Hey, anything you've got that might fit under the CFO's role, I have a particular interest in.' Not at all," Atwater said. "I did not weigh in."
A North Palm Beach Republican, Atwater has raised $1.6 million in his campaign for CFO, plus another $1 million through a political committee. His opponent in the Republican primary, Deland Rep. Pat Patterson, has raised just $64,000. Patterson said he's concerned about the motivations behind the Senate's CFO legislation.
"It looks kind of ridiculous," Patterson said. "It doesn't bode well for the Senate if the Senate president is behind this. It doesn't look good."
Atwater said he's not the one behind the legislation, some of which weakens the powers of the governor's office. He suggested that the bills stem from a list of proposals current CFO Alex Sink presented to him to improve the Department of Financial Services and the state fire marshal, which fall under her office.
But a review of Sink's list shows that only two of about a dozen of the proposals are moving in the Legislature. The other proposals that Sink, now running for governor, presented to Atwater have either stalled or not been incorporated into bills.
Major proposals under consideration to expand the powers of the CFO — none suggested by Sink — include:
• Reorganizing the Department of Management Services, now under the governor's office, so the CFO manages all state vehicles, monitors privatized prisons and controls state purchasing in a state with a $66.5 billion budget and massive contracts sought by major companies.
• Creating a new chief technology officer to be appointed by the governor and Cabinet but falling under the CFO's office. The officer, working with the state purchasing division, would eventually have a major say over hundreds of millions of dollars in computer contracts.
• Passing a state constitutional amendment putting the CFO in charge of setting uniform accounting provisions across all government agencies related to the state, from universities to local governments to water management districts.
• Creating a "strike force'' under the CFO to investigate fraud in the food stamp program and in Medicaid, a state-federal health program for the poor serving nearly 14 percent of Florida's population. Inquiries would be conducted by the CFO's financial services department, not the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
None of the measures has a House sponsor. Other bills bolstering the CFO's powers have sponsors in both chambers.
Sink said in a written statement that she feels privatized prisons fall outside her office's "core mission," but she'd support nearly any effort to crack down on Medicaid fraud. As for the technology and purchasing contracts, Sink said: "Florida needs greatly improved governance for large-scale enterprise information system procurements, and that governance must be at the governor and Cabinet level."
Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Parkland Democrat who chairs the Governmental Oversight and Accountability Committee, said he's sponsoring the chief technology office legislation and the reorganization of the Department of Management Services to modernize government. He said he and his staff came up with the legislation, which he said has nothing to do with Atwater's political ambitions.
"That kind of conspiracy theory is inaccurate. We brought this to the Senate president. Not the other way around," said Ring.
Atwater said DMS officials haven't done a good job answering legislators about state-owned properties and contracts: "They couldn't identify where buildings were, couldn't get us inventories."
Gov. Charlie Crist didn't sound enthusiastic about Ring's re-organization bill, saying only he'd "take a look'' at it. Many of Ring's proposals are being written into the Senate's proposed budget. If the House goes along, Crist will have a tough time stripping the language from the budget.
The Senate's powerful budget chairman, Republican J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, said he's sponsoring the constitutional amendment on accounting for two reasons: the governor can't veto it under constitutional rules and because the CFO should be in charge of a single statewide accounting system that makes spending more transparent.
"It makes sense to put financial and accounting duties under the chief financial officer," said Alexander, who has crusaded for years to reform state contracting.
Atwater, whose word can spell life or death over legislation, said he'll use his powers to make sure the measures are heard in the House. "Certainly," he said, "I'll be encouraging the House."
Marc Caputo can be reached at email@example.com.