Politics

Deadlock on insurance regulator tests political skills of Florida governor, CFO

Gov. Rick Scott supports Jeffrey Bragg of Palm Harbor, a Tallahassee outsider with private sector and Washington experience, to be the next insurance commissioner.
Gov. Rick Scott supports Jeffrey Bragg of Palm Harbor, a Tallahassee outsider with private sector and Washington experience, to be the next insurance commissioner. Miami Herald file photo

Politics and the regulation of your insurance coverage is a dangerous mix in Florida.

This maxim takes on new relevance as the state braces for another hurricane season in just a few weeks (the first named storm is “Alex”).

Winds of change are swirling in Tallahassee.

Florida needs an insurance commissioner, arguably the most important consumer protection job in the state government, so Gov. Rick Scott’s judgment could be tested as never before.

Scott and the three Cabinet members will try again Tuesday to agree on a successor to Kevin McCarty, who provided savvy and stability for 13 years at the Office of Insurance Regulation as the first and only appointee in the job.

A little history: In 2002, after voters merged the elected offices of comptroller and insurance commissioner into the post of chief financial officer, the Legislature put the regulatory power under an appointee to end the unseemly practice of an elected official soliciting campaign money from regulated insurance companies.

Lawmakers also decided that the insurance regulator must be a consensus choice of both the governor and the CFO, in addition to at least one other Cabinet member.

At the end of perfunctory public interviews a few weeks ago, Scott went all-in for one candidate: Jeffrey Bragg of Palm Harbor, a Tallahassee outsider with private sector and Washington experience.

“Gov. Scott continues to believe that Jeffrey Bragg is the best candidate for the position,” Scott’s office said. “His 40 years of experience in the public and private sector, including at the federal terrorism risk insurance program, make him an ideal candidate to serve Floridians.”

Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater wanted Bill Hager, an expert witness in insurance lawsuits, arbitrator and Republican member of the state House from Palm Beach County.

Yes, that House, the one that rejected Scott’s priorities in the legislative session that ended in March.

Atwater in effect has veto power over Scott’s choice.

The CFO — by nature and experience — prefers compromise over confrontation.

Atwater hasn’t expressed any inclination to support Bragg, Scott’s choice. But neither has the CFO given a compelling reason why insurance regulation should be in the hands of a political figure, other than to tout his “life experiences” and “skill set.”

Someone has to give.

Giving himself added maneuvering room, Atwater has added two finalists to the mix: Belinda Miller, McCarty’s long-time chief of staff and his choice to be his successor, and Ray Blacklidge, a long-time insurance executive from Pinellas Park.

Both will be interviewed at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting.

Reaching a consensus on McCarty’s replacement is proving to be elusive. But it’s not yet a crisis because McCarty agreed to stay on for 45 days after his replacement is chosen.

Still, as hurricane season approaches, it’s hard to overstate the importance of a hiring decision that could affect the pocketbooks of so many Floridians.

And while it’s not Scott’s decision alone, the buck stops with him.

If Scott needs a reminder of the stakes, it’s on the list of named storms for the season, after Nicole, Otto and Paula.

Richard.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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