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Secretary of State Browning is Scott's first double-dipper hire

Retirement was going as former Secretary of State Kurt Browning figured it would: a lot of working in the yard, loving on his grandbaby, padding around the barn at his Dade City home.

Then last month, his phone rang. Gov. Rick Scott's transition team was calling. Could Browning come to Tallahassee and meet?

"I really did not know what they wanted to talk about," said Browning, 52. "When I got up there to talk, it was pretty clear that I was one of the candidates."

For his old job.

Browning this week was named secretary of state, a position he held for nearly 31/2 years before retiring in April. Before that, he served as Pasco County's elections supervisor for 26 years.

With his surprise return to state government, Browning has become the first "double-dipper" of the Scott administration. He will draw two streams of income in his new position: one from a salary and the other from the state pension fund that Scott has vowed to reform.

Browning on Thursday defended his return, saying that the Scott team had sought him out, not the other way around. And he noted that even if he had not returned to the position, he'd still be getting a pension and someone else would be getting roughly the same salary.

"The whole 'double dipping' thing, I think, has been blown out of proportion," he said. "They're not going to bring in a younger guy and pay him less."

He said he could understand the criticism if he were "just a political appointment, or some hack who did something on (Scott's) campaign.

"But I think he wants to put the best people in these positions."

Scott said as much himself when asked by a reporter about Browning collecting two state paychecks simultaneously.

"Yeah, I'm aware of that," Scott said. "His qualifications were that important. I want to make sure that this office is run well and we do a great job for the 2012 election."

Browning said Thursday he did not yet know his salary. When he retired, he received a payout of nearly $427,000.

He also receives a roughly $7,000 monthly benefit. Because of state retirement regulations, that benefit will be suspended between his Jan. 11 start date and April, said Lauren Engel, a spokeswoman for the Department of Management Services.

Browning said he talked with the transition team leaders about the issue and even suggested they run his appointment by state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a frequent critic of double-dipping. (They did not.)

Fasano said Thursday that as much as he respects Browning, he can't support his hire. That comes as no surprise: Fasano said he objected last summer when Browning floated the possibility of returning to work for Crist after sitting out 30 days.

"Kurt is a friend of mine, and he's going to do a great job, a wonderful job," Fasano said. "But with unemployment at the rate we see, we cannot be hiring double-dippers."

• • •

Scott, a retired corporate executive with no government experience, has promised to transform state government in part by slashing the work force and forcing workers to pay a portion of their retirement.

That raises the question: Why would a lifelong public employee like Browning want to work for him?

Browning, who had his first meeting with Scott on Monday, said he shared many of the governor's views, especially when it came to implementing performance standards in government.

"That's the exciting part," Browning said. "Can it be done better, can it be done with less tax dollars?"

Browning said he has some ideas, such as a one-stop shopping for new businesses that are incorporating, that did not pan out when he was serving under former Gov. Charlie Crist because of internal disputes.

"His face lit up when I talked about some of our ideas," Browning said of Scott. The governor also asked for his ideas on improving the speed of election results in Broward and Palm Beach counties.

But Browning acknowledged that a projected $3.5 billion state deficit would mean cuts in his department's work force.

He said Thursday he felt protective of his old stomping grounds and figured he had the know-how to go for the cuts methodically, with a scalpel.

"Once you're within an agency, you fall in love with it," he said. "At least now I can be part of it. I'm so incredibly grateful he's given me another opportunity to do this. I know there's going to be some tough days ahead."

One aspect of his agency that he advocated for during the Crist administration? Funding for libraries and cultural programs.

Those programs always have a target on them and will no doubt take a hit this year. Browning said he did not talk with Scott about it, but will continue to fight for them because he thinks they are quality-of-life amenities that attract businesses. "I think we fit very well into Gov. Scott's plan to spur job creation," he said.

Browning will keep his home in Dade City, and he said his wife, Kathy, will continue working as a registered nurse with the Pasco School district.

Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Secretary of State Browning is Scott's first double-dipper hire 01/06/11 [Last modified: Thursday, January 6, 2011 10:23pm]
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