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Saturday, Apr 19, 2014

Tom Lee has much to offer state


There is a lot of buzz about Hillsborough Sen. Tom Lee’s political future, and the state should benefit if this is more than Tallahassee shoptalk.

Lee is said to be among Gov. Rick Scott’s top choices for lieutenant governor, a post that has been open since Jennifer Carroll resigned in March.

Lee also acknowledges he has an interest in the chief financial officer position should incumbent Jeff Atwater leave the Cabinet to become president of Florida Atlantic University. Atwater is a finalist for the job and should he be chosen by FAU’s board of trustees, Scott would appoint his replacement, who would serve until the fall election.

Lee would be a smart choice for either position.

The Cabinet-level CFO job probably would be the best fit. Lee, who ran unsuccessfully for the position in 2006, made financial planning and fiscal accountability priorities during his eventful tenure as Senate president from 2004-06. He pushed ethics reforms with admirable resolve. (He returned to his successful development business and was elected to the Legislature again when the East Hillsborough Senate seat opened in 2012.)

Lee has a command of the Cabinet’s many diverse responsibilities, which include state lands, law enforcement and trust funds.

In contrast, the lieutenant governor’s job is generally derided as ceremonial, and Gov. Scott has not enhanced its prestige by failing to replace Carroll for 10 months.

But if the right person is selected and the governor is supportive, the lieutenant governor can be a major force.

We remember Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay as very much a partner in Gov. Lawton Chiles’ administration. MacKay oversaw the weekly meeting of department heads, where he snuffed out turf battles and made sure all the agencies were following the same game plan. Chiles also utilized MacKay as something of a crisis manager, assigning him tough tasks such as streamlining the bloated, blunder-plagued state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

Likewise, Frank Brogan and Toni Jennings, lieutenant governors to Gov. Jeb Bush, were engaged in shaping and advancing Bush’s agenda, particularly on education and growth management.

But under former Gov. Charlie Crist and Scott, the position has been given little power or influence. It needn’t be that way.

Lee grew up in Florida and understands its many complex challenges, including water supply and growth management. Scott is still a relative newcomer to the state. He’s razor-sharp on economic development matters, but sometimes less certain on other issues. Lee, if given a substantial role, would strengthen Scott’s agenda. The veteran lawmaker also knows how to get things done in the Legislature.

It’s true, the lieutenant governor’s post has been mostly a political dead end, but that doesn’t mean the job cannot be fulfilling in its own right — if the governor wants a leader, not a figurehead.

In any event, Lee’s track record should give Scott and the people of Florida confidence that he will serve the state conscientiously however events unfold.