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No vote on insurance commissioner as Gov. Scott, Cabinet can’t agree

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater looks on as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the Florida State Fair, Feb. 5, 2015, in Tampa.
Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater looks on as Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam speaks during a Cabinet meeting at the Florida State Fair, Feb. 5, 2015, in Tampa. AP

Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet deadlocked Tuesday over who will be the state’s next insurance commissioner, refusing to appoint anyone as hurricane season approaches.

Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — the two most important votes for this job — could not agree on either of the two finalists, forcing the group to declare an impasse and re-open the application process.

Although the governor and all three elected Cabinet members get to vote on the position, state law requires Atwater, whose agency has jurisdiction over many insurance-related issues, and Scott to be on the same side of a winning vote.

“We should keep at it, until we have a good consensus,” Atwater said after the meeting.

Scott and the Cabinet wanted to fill the position before hurricane season begins in June, but now, Atwater said the Cabinet may have to try to talk current commissioner Kevin McCarty into staying on the job past May 2, when he was scheduled to leave after more than 13 years.

It’s another setback for the governor who since January has seen his legislative priorities dismissed by the Legislature, watched key members of his administration resign — including his top economic development chief on Monday — and now has failed to get his choice for insurance commissioner through the Cabinet, all fellow Republicans.

After the meeting, Atwater downplayed the split with Scott.

“There was no oneupmanship,” Atwater said.

Scott was set on Palm Harbor Republican Jeffrey Bragg, a former U.S. Treasury official who ran the nation’s terrorism risk insurance program under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

“I believe that Jeff Bragg would have been a very good pick,” Scott said.

But Scott never got to make his case. Before Scott could propose Bragg, Atwater acknowledged he was going to be “quicker on the draw” and recommended state Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, get the job at $190,000 a year. Within seconds, Scott declared he was not going to support Atwater’s recommendation and immediately proposed re-opening the application process.

Attorney General Pam Bondi didn’t get a chance to weigh in, but told reporters later that she favored Hager, too.

“I was impressed with both of them, but I know Bill Hager personally and think the world of him,” Bondi said. “So if I had to vote, I have no problem saying I would have voted for him.”

Afterward, Scott would not explain why he objected to Hager, only saying he thought Bragg would be good to lead the Office of Insurance Regulation.

During his public interview with the Cabinet, Bragg promised to continue efforts to grow a “vigorous and active” private insurance market.

Hager is vice chair of the Florida House banking and insurance committee and was the Iowa insurance commissioner in the late 1980s.

Like Bragg, Hager promised to continue growing the state’s private-sector insurance market and stressed his experience working with the Legislature and in the private sector.

“I heard them both out, and I think that Bill made the more compelling case,” Atwater said.

The governor and Cabinet had a much easier time deciding on a new leader for the Department of Revenue. The four unanimously picked Leon Biegalski, currently deputy secretary for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

Jeremy Wallace: 850-224-7263, jwallace@tampabay.com, @jeremyswallace

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