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Transportation secretary is one of many openings in Gov. Rick Scott's administration

TALLAHASSEE — Florida Gov. Rick Scott has yet to name the state's top transportation official, but already he has installed the agency's chief of staff, hired its lawyer and pulled the trigger on a major decision to blow up plans for high-speed rail.

Scott is planning an ambitious overhaul of how the state provides health care to 3 million Florida Medicaid recipients, but he still hasn't named a chief for the Department of Health or for the Agency for Health Care Administration.

The agency directors Scott has hired had little-to-no input on his controversial budget recommendation.

One, Carl Littlefield, resigned Monday only 17 days after being nominated as director of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities when senators said Scott didn't know that he previously oversaw a region that included a controversial Hillsborough County group home.

"Occasionally he steps in it," Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, said of Scott. "But he's learning his way."

Rep. Scott Randolph, D-Orlando, said having a transportation secretary in place probably would not have made a difference in Scott's high-speed rail decision. Stephanie Kopelousos left the job Feb. 11 for a consulting job with U.S. Rep. John Mica, R-Fla.

"That decision was made on a pure ideological basis," Randolph said of Scott. "If it was simply a financial worry, he could have sat down with the feds and found another way to do this."

Scott, who largely relied on input from a pair of conservative think tanks to kill high-speed rail, dismissed a suggestion that he should have consulted with his yet-to-be named secretary.

"I made the decision," Scott said.

Despite Scott's position, a team of rail advocates continued work Tuesday on developing a plan to meet Scott's insistence that the state not be on the hook for any costs.

Little was said publicly about the talks, which are politically sensitive and facing a Friday deadline imposed by the federal government for Florida to hold on to $2.4 billion in federal money.

"There are ongoing discussions but we're not going to go into detail," said U.S. Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair, refusing to confirm whether agency staffers had traveled to Florida.

On Monday, state and local officials announced the outlines of a plan that would entail two or more local governments joining to create a new independent regional agency that could receive the federal rail funds Scott rejected last week, then hire a private company to build and run the bullet train. The private vendor would be required to assume all financial risks for building and running the bullet train, backers said.

Scott is not convinced.

"It's not worth the risk," Scott said.

To run the Florida Department of Transportation, Scott is considering three applicants approved by the state Transportation Commission: Collier Enterprises vice president Thomas Conrecode, a member of Scott's transition team; former Santa Rosa County Commissioner Gordon Goodin; and Ananth Prasad, the assistant transportation secretary for engineering and operations.

Unlike many agencies, where Scott can appoint his own choice, the Transportation Department secretary must come from a pool selected by the commission.

Scott received those names Feb. 14. He announced his plans to refuse the federal money Feb. 16.

Scott spokesman Brian Hughes said they had missed a Feb. 15 deadline from the U.S. Transportation Department to "keep the project moving on the federal budget schedule."

"They wanted an answer," Hughes said.

The U.S. Transportation Department disputes there was a deadline in place for the state, and Scott has said the timing of his announcement was because he had made his decision.

"Whenever I get ready to make a decision, I like to get it out there and let people know what I believe in," Scott said Thursday.

At least eight state departments that Scott has authority over are being run by holdovers from Gov. Charlie Crist's administration, one Scott repeatedly criticized from the campaign trail as being unresponsive to the needs of businesses.

"The signal it sends to me is that he's not serious about the agencies," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "It's a top-down situation."

Agency heads should consult the governor on major decisions, but they are mostly in place to carry out the governor's policies, said Eric Eikenberg, Crist's former chief of staff.

"Their transition is ongoing and it's going to take a while," Eikenberg said. "But he has surrounded himself with capable people."

Senate Republican Leader Andy Gardiner of Orlando laughed when asked if Scott would need help from his agencies to push his policies during the upcoming legislative session.

"He's done a pretty good job already of pushing an agenda," Gardiner said. "He's the top guy, and whatever secretaries are in place are going to feel the same."

Times/Herald staff writers Alex Leary and Janet Zink contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

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Transportation secretary is one of many openings in Gov. Rick Scott's administration 02/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 22, 2011 10:40pm]

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