TALLAHASSEE — Florida senators on Tuesday again postponed a vote to confirm Dr. John Armstrong as state surgeon general, ending what may have been his last shot to keep his $141,000-a-year job running the Department of Health.
Unless one of five lawmakers opposing the Gov. Rick Scott appointee changes his or her vote by March 11, it appears the governor will need to pick a new surgeon general.
There are no more scheduled meetings of the Ethics and Elections Committee during this legislative session. Senate President Andy Gardiner says he will not bend rules to force a vote by the full chamber in its final two weeks of the session.
Gardiner's spokeswoman, Katherine Betta, said "it's possible" that Ethics and Elections could meet again, but that decision has not been made.
Betta said the critical factor is whether there are enough votes to confirm Armstrong.
Armstrong has been under fire for the Health Department's handling of a number of issues, including the removal of about 9,000 kids from the Children's Medical Services program and repeal of pediatric heart surgery standards.
Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, says a failure by the department to curb the spread of HIV, particularly in South Florida, is a major problem. The state leads the country in new infections, and the problem has worsened in the past three years while the Health Department cut workers in its county clinics.
"Our biggest epidemic is AIDS, and he didn't start talking about it until he didn't have the votes," Braynon said. "That's a pure failure."
Four of the five votes against Armstrong on Ethics and Elections are Democrats. The fifth is Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami, who voted against Armstrong in the Senate's Health Policy Committee and said Tuesday that she isn't sure whether she would consider changing that vote.
"Part of our job is to make sure that the secretaries who are up here are committed," Flores said. "This is an entity that deals with public health, and so that's the question: What's the commitment to public health?"
Tuesday was the third time a vote on Armstrong has been postponed this year, and some senators are calling for an up-or-down vote to bring some finality to the issue.
"I don't believe that it's proper for the Senate to delay, delay, delay and then not take a stand," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who supports Armstrong's confirmation although he voiced concerns in the past. "Let's either confirm him, or let's not confirm him and let's move onto another nominee."
The last time a state agency head lost his job at the hands of the Legislature was in 1995.
The Senate, controlled by Republicans that year for the first time since Reconstruction, refused to confirm Jim Towey, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and former secretary of the former Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, now called the Department of Children and Families.
The chairman of the Senate committee that rejected Towey was then-Republican Sen. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, who voted to reject Towey, as did Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, whose explanation sounded strikingly similar to what senators are saying today about Armstrong.
"He's well-meaning, he's sincere and he's very caring about the people,'' Latvala said of Towey, as quoted in the Palm Beach Post.
Scott's office did not say Tuesday what contingencies are in place to replace the surgeon general if the Senate does not confirm Armstrong.
A spokeswoman for the governor reiterated a statement expressing support for the surgeon general, who was appointed by Scott in 2012 and is one of the longest-serving agency heads in his administration. Armstrong was one of several appointees not confirmed last year after relations between the governor and Senate broke down over Medicaid expansion.
Armstrong said Monday that he has been meeting with senators to answer their questions.
"I think those conversations, they've been rich. I think they've been productive," he said. "We've made a lot of progress in the last three years, and I'm hopeful to continue."
Senate Ethics and Elections chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, remained supportive of Armstrong and said that it's still possible votes might swing.
"We've got two more weeks to session," he said. "I'm sure there have been stranger things to turn on a dime in the Florida Legislature."
Contact Michael Auslen at email@example.com. Follow @MichaelAuslen.