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CFO Atwater faces challenge from public finances veteran

Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau
Published: October 9, 2014 Updated: October 9, 2014 at 07:02 PM

TALLAHASSEE — With the neck-and-neck governor’s race getting all the attention, there hasn’t been much press on the 2014 contest for chief financial officer of the state of Florida.

Though it isn’t getting the same focus, the job is crucial to the state. The Department of Financial Services, of which the chief financial officer is head, touches the lives of millions of Floridians.

Still, the race is perhaps best known for a candidate who tanked as quickly as he appeared – and that was a year ago. Last August, Democratic candidate Allie Braswell dropped out four days after he got in when it was revealed he had filed for bankruptcy three times in 13 years.

It was an inauspicious start to a campaign for what’s essentially the state’s green-eyeshades-in-chief.

The decision now is between incumbent Republican Jeff Atwater, the former banking executive and Florida Senate president, and Democratic challenger Will Rankin – businessman, Army vet and former Ohio State Treasury official.

Atwater says he has gone after fraud, made the state contracting process more transparent, and diligently shepherded the public’s money.

Rankin says his public finance and other experience makes him “eminently qualified” and criticizes Atwater’s political background.

Atwater, who’s from Palm Beach County, also interviewed for the presidency of Florida Atlantic University earlier this year but wasn’t named a finalist.

As in other Cabinet races, the race tilts toward the incumbent: Atwater leads overwhelmingly in fundraising, $2.86 million to Rankin’s $16,000, and a Florida Chamber poll last month showed the incumbent leading by 16 points.

The office was created after the 1998 Constitutional Revision Commission recommended collapsing several state departments into one, including Insurance, Treasury, State Fire Marshal and Banking and Finance.

The state constitution now says that “the chief financial officer … shall settle and approve accounts against the state, and shall keep all state funds and securities.”

“We said we would focus on transparency, so people could see how their money was spent, and we are now putting all (state) contracts online,” Atwater said. “When I got into office, nobody knew how many contracts there were.

“Nobody knew how much was spent on vendors,” he added. “Nobody knew the performance measures or what were the consequences if a vendor didn’t deliver on time or not at all? … Now there are 60,000 contracts online.”

Earlier this year, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group graded the states on financial transparency and gave Florida an A-minus for “providing online access to government spending data.”

Atwater also targeted auto insurance fraud. Con artists had turned Florida into the top state for staged car wrecks to file false no-fault insurance claims.

He says he partnered with other law enforcement agencies to go after criminals, increasing arrests and convictions and helping to shut down clinics billing for medical care never provided.

Rankin, of Broward County, says he has experience Atwater lacks, including responsibility for safekeeping more than $120 billion in public trust and retirement money in Ohio, and more than a decade investigating economic crime and arson as an Army special agent.

He said he would press for a reversal of the decision to make state employees contribute 3 percent of their pay to the state’s pension fund starting in 2011. After a lawsuit, the Florida Supreme Court narrowly ruled in favor of the policy in a 4-3 decision last year.

The retirement system is about 86 percent funded; experts generally agree that pension plans are healthy if they’re at least 80 percent funded. That said, the fund still needs a yearly infusion of millions of dollars from general revenue.

“I’ll provide the facts and figures, which is what Atwater should have done for the people of Florida,” Rankin said. “It’s not necessary and it’s basically a pay decrease.”

The chief financial officer also sits on the Florida Cabinet, which votes on a variety of state policy decisions, including clemency.

Atwater joined fellow Republicans Gov. Rick Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam in 2011 in voting to revoke automatic restoration of rights, such as voting, to nonviolent felons upon release. Those individuals now must apply to the state.

“It certainly highlights the attitude and character of the Republican Party,” Rankin said. “It is just another example of politicizing a public policy …”

“It’s real simple for me: If a person has done their time and made restitution, they should have their civil rights restored automatically,” he added. “They were automatically set aside, so they should be automatically restored.”

Prison officials “don’t keep your watch, they don’t keep your wallet and say, ‘Well, we’re going to keep these for a few years just in case you come back,’” Rankin said. “It’s just common sense ... By keeping someone’s civil rights, you’re keeping them from society.”

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