Florida

Senate snub prompts Gov. Rick Scott to reappoint 16 agency heads

Florida Gov. Rick Scott acted swiftly Monday to reappoint the heads of 16 state agencies who slipped into political limbo when the Senate refused to confirm them in the 2015 legislative session.

The group includes heads of major agencies that oversee health care, Medicaid, transportation, prisons, elections and the environment, as well as the executive director of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Scott on Tuesday will ask the three elected Cabinet members to ratify two agency appointments, FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen and Jon Steverson, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection. These two positions report to the governor and Cabinet.

Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, confirmed Monday that the blocked confirmations were at least in part the result of the way Scott’s administration dealt with senators.

“The Senate confirmation process should be more than a simple rubber stamp,” Gardiner said in a statement. “Toward the end of session, I heard from many senators who were not satisfied with some of the answers provided or still had some outstanding questions for several agency heads.”

On Wednesday, their last regular day of lawmaking, senators found the time to confirm 71 of Scott’s appointees, but they did not consider any state agency secretaries.

By law, any appointee of the governor subject to Senate confirmation who is not confirmed can be reappointed within 45 days. Anyone not confirmed after a second regular session is out of a job.

The confirmations all hit a political brick wall three weeks ago in the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee after two agency heads faced aggressive and critical questioning at hearings. A week later, the confirmations appeared doomed after Scott had a series of contentious one-on-one meetings with Republican senators in which they said he threatened to veto their bills or budget items if they did not pass his priorities, including tax cuts.

In an action rarely seen in Tallahassee, the Senate Health Policy Committee tabled a committee vote on Surgeon General John Armstrong, secretary of the Department of Health, after he testified that he had not “formulated an opinion” on the benefits of expanding health care to the uninsured, the issue that triggered the bitter breakdown between the Senate and House and the House’s surprise shutdown April 28.

Secretary of State Ken Detzner, the state’s chief elections official, ran into a buzzsaw of criticism at two Senate hearings after he registered his opposition to a bill to create an online voter registration system in Florida by 2017.

In both cases, Detzner was ordered to face questions from senators after he initially refused to explain his opposition.

“We need to know,” Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, told Detzner at an April 14 hearing.

In addition to Armstrong and Detzner, Scott reappointed state technology director Jason Allison; transportation secretary James Boxold; children and families secretary Mike Carroll; juvenile justice secretary Christina Daly; health care administration secretary Liz Dudek; corrections secretary Julie Jones; business and professional regulation secretary Ken Lawson; lottery secretary Cynthia O’Connell; director Barbara Palmer of the Agency for Persons with Disabilities; economic opportunity secretary Jesse Panuccio; management services secretary Chad Poppell; and elder affairs secretary Samuel Verghese.

The last agency head to lose his job because the Senate refused confirmation was Jim Towey, who in 1995 was secretary of the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services, the forerunner to the Department of Children and Families. Towey, who is now president of Ave Maria University in Naples, worked for Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles and was ousted from office in the first year that Republicans controlled the Senate.

The Legislature is in recess but has not yet accomplished its only job mandated by the Constitution: to pass a state budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Gardiner has called for a three-week special session beginning June 1.

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

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