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Cabinet post still lacks job description

In less than eight months, voters will elect a powerful new leader to take on the huge task of regulating insurance and banking.

But state legislators still don't know exactly what the chief financial officer will do, and voters still might not know when they go the polls in November.

The House and Senate have passed vastly different proposals on the matter. Legislators, who have had four years to figure it out, are supposed to adjourn Friday.

That leaves little time for compromise. Besides, neither side appears eager to give in and might just let a judge decide.

"We have a big problem," concluded Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor, after the House unanimously passed its version Wednesday. "We don't have a bill to match it. . . . We'll probably let the courts decide it."

House Speaker Tom Feeney said the Senate probably will not accept the House version, but he hopes a unanimous decision by the House would spur the two to negotiate.

"It might put us in the posture to compromise," he said. "But I can't tell you what the Senate will do."

Some sort of compromise may be in the works.

"I think it will all be fine," said Insurance Commissioner Tom Gallagher, who plans to run for the post. "It's still early."

Gallagher has spoken on this topic numerous times but was closed-lipped Wednesday, refusing to comment on whether the compromise could be part of a deal on other controversial insurance bills.

"There is compromise language floating around," said Jon Shebel, president of Associated Industries of Florida, the influential business lobbying group.

The chief financial officer merges two jobs now held by Gallagher and Comptroller Bob Milligan. They disagree on how their jobs should be merged and might face each other in November.

The pair spent part of the day walking the halls, spreading the word about their respective positions.

"There is a possibility of common ground," said Gov. Jeb Bush, who met with Milligan in private on Wednesday.

Legislators, who must come up with a plan by the time the chief financial officer takes office in January, could try again this spring in a special session or during an organizational session after the November elections.

The Cabinet-level position was created by voters in 1998 as part of a plan to reduce the size of the state Cabinet from six to three positions.

The House version allows the people who regulate banking and insurance to be insulated from the elected chief financial officer. The original Senate version had regulators under control of an elected official, though it has changed somewhat since the bill was drafted to make them more insulated from the political Cabinet position.

While the insurance industry has not taken a public stance on the bills, banking lobbyists adamantly support the House version.

"We think it best removes the politics," said Anthony DiMarco of the Florida Bankers Association.

Gallagher says voters intended to reduce the size of the state government when they approved the merger, not just create two new agencies. But Milligan says giving all the duties to one person would put too much power in one place.

_ Times staff writer Lucy Morgan contributed to this report.

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