There are two strong candidates seeking to succeed Alex Sink as Florida's chief financial officer and oversee the state's finances and contracts. Republican Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach has an extensive background in banking and is the outgoing state Senate president. Democrat Loranne Ausley is a Tallahassee lawyer and a former legislator who served her constituents well. Atwater's business background and leadership in the Legislature, along with demonstrated independence, gives him the edge.
Atwater, 52, worked in top executive positions in several South Florida banks before leaving last year to devote his full attention to running the Senate. He deserves enormous credit for withstanding tremendous pressure from fellow Republicans and others as he refused to open the door to oil drilling in state waters. Without his strong defense, a bill passed by the House last year likely would have become law months before the BP oil spill reminded everyone of the dangers of offshore drilling. That willingness to take a stand against a rush to bad policy will be beneficial to the governor and Cabinet, which will have at least three new faces.
Atwater also was one of the few Tallahassee politicians who took seriously a state grand jury report denouncing the budgeting process that allowed former House Speaker Ray Sansom to disguise a $6 million airport hangar for a friend as a community college building. Under Atwater's watch, the Senate budget process was more transparent. He pledges to create more transparency if he becomes CFO, a job that involves keeping the state's accounts and helping oversee the state's banking and insurance industries. One promising idea: clearer standards to measure success on state contracts, so taxpayers can see which ones are carried out on time and at cost.
Atwater is a pragmatic fiscal conservative. His unsuccessful push in 2009 to reform Florida's tax structure to make it more stable and his willingness to back increases in some fees showed a realistic, nonpartisan side. He has also demonstrated a commitment to environmental land conservation and Everglades restoration, which he would play a role in as a member of the Cabinet. He correctly believes the State Board of Administration, the state investment agency, needs more oversight and is open to adding professional expertise to the SBA Board of Trustees composed of the governor, the CFO and the attorney general.
Atwater, as he eyed his statewide run for CFO, did succumb to hollow rhetoric earlier this year by joining Republican legislators in bashing the growing federal deficit — even as they eagerly took billions in federal stimulus dollars to balance the state budget. He also may have given too much leeway to a handful of Republican senators looking out for their own interests. But overall, Atwater's experience in banking and politics would serve Florida well as CFO.
Ausley, 46, served eight years in the state House and is chair of the Florida Healthy Kids Corp., a public-private institution that provides health insurance for children. She is a bright and sincere candidate who takes seriously the role of fiscal watchdog. But many of her best ideas are better pursued as a legislator than as CFO, and she lacks Atwater's managerial experience in political and professional life. There are also two independent candidates.
For chief financial officer, the Times recommends Jeff Atwater.