PANAMA CITY — Gov. Rick Scott on Monday picked close friend and supporter Jimmy Patronis to be Florida's next chief financial officer, a lucrative prize for loyalty that casts new light on Patronis' pro-business votes as a legislator and his support for higher electricity costs as a regulator.
Patronis, 45, is a former Republican House member from Panama City with deep Panhandle roots who has been a Scott appointee to the Public Service Commission for the past 18 months. Scott also gave Patronis a plum position on the Constitution Revision Commission, but the new CFO will leave both of those posts.
A restaurateur with a political science degree from Florida State University, Patronis will now be in charge of the state's checkbooks while overseeing an agency with about 2,000 employees, a budget of $298 million and special oversight of the insurance industry.
The CFO runs the state's accounting and auditing functions, manages a massive portfolio of unclaimed property and is the state fire marshal, too.
Patronis also will be one of three Cabinet members who set state policy with the governor and each year decide hundreds of cases of felons who seek to regain their civil rights after waiting a period of five years.
Patronis would not say Monday whether he favors easing restrictions on rights restoration, which are currently among the strictest in the United States. "I intend to sit down and hear both sides of every argument, for and against," he said.
Scott made the announcement at Captain Anderson's, a landmark Panama City seafood restaurant that's been run by the close-knit Patronis family for the past 50 years. The walls of the spacious restaurant are covered with autographed photos of U.S. senators, college and pro athletes and coaches and Hollywood celebrities.
About 100 relatives, friends and local business and political leaders turned out in a show of support for the gregarious Patronis, known for his love of seersucker suits and all things FSU.
"He's somebody I've known for a long time," said Scott, who recalled that Patronis was a fervent supporter in the spring of 2010 when most people gave Scott "no shot" of being elected governor. Scott cited Patronis' personal traits, such as his work ethic, and did not cite his specific qualifications to be CFO.
"One thing about Jimmy," Scott said. "Whatever he tells you he's going to do he's going to do. There's no question. He's not going to waver. He's not going to play games. He's a direct, honest person."
As a lawmaker from 2006 to 2014, Patronis was among the most consistent pro-business legislators in Tallahassee. For six years in a row, from 2009 through 2014, he received a perfect 100 score from the Florida Chamber of Commerce.
Conservationists criticized his efforts in the House to roll back environmental protections in a controversial 2013 bill that Scott signed into law.
Susan Glickman, Florida director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said Patronis continued to support business over consumers on the PSC. She cited his vote last November for an $811 million rate hike for Florida Power & Light Co. over the next three years.
"Jimmy Patronis voted to enrich big monopoly power companies at the expense of businesses and families," she said.
The Florida Democratic Party called Patronis' appointment another case of "cronyism."
"Floridians are facing rising insurance rates and stagnant wages, but Rick Scott is propping up yet another yes-man rather than prioritizing the needs of working Floridians," the party said in a statement. "This governor has stacked nearly every appointment with special interest lackeys rather than the most qualified candidates."
With his wife, Katie, and their two young sons, Patronis choked up as he faced TV cameras. He called Scott "my friend and my mentor" and said the governor's record on Florida's economy has been "revolutionary."
The question of who Scott would choose as Florida's fourth CFO has been the subject of speculation for months after Jeff Atwater announced he would resign to take a high-level job at Florida Atlantic University near his West Palm Beach home.
Patronis sidestepped questions about whether he plans to seek a full four-year term in 2018, when Scott is widely expected to challenge three-term Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.
"There will be plenty of time to talk about it. I've got a lot to get up to speed on with the CFO's office," he said.
Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, himself a Scott appointee, said that if Patronis runs for CFO, he will face questions about his PSC votes.
"Let's not forget Florida's new CFO approved higher utility rates on millions of Duke Energy and Florida Power & Light customers," Fasano said on Twitter.
Patronis appeared later with Scott in Tampa, where he was pressed to explain his qualifications for the job.
"Well, primarily as a small business owner, but I've done a few things in my life that I'm pretty proud of," Patronis said, mentioning his stint on the governing board of Panama City's airport district. He then hopped into a car to leave.
"They're my only ride," Patronis told a reporter.
The only announced candidate for CFO in 2018 is Jeremy Ring, a former Democratic state senator from Broward County.
Asked how picking Patronis might help Scott politically, the governor said: "I never think about it that way."
Patronis told reporters Monday he didn't actively solicit the appointment. He said the first time Scott contacted him about it was in a Sunday afternoon phone call. A spokesman for Scott confirmed Patronis' account.
The CFO's salary, effective July 1, is $128,972 a year.
Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] Follow @stevebousquet.