A tense standoff deepened Tuesday between Gov. Rick Scott and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater over who should be Florida’s next insurance commissioner, weeks before the start of hurricane season.
After Atwater refused for a second time to support Scott’s favorite for the job, Scott called a special Cabinet meeting for Friday to screen two new candidates — this time by phone. It will mark the third attempt to find a replacement for Kevin McCarty, who has run the Office of Insurance Regulation since 2003.
The prolonged battle between Scott and Atwater, including a disagreement over whether McCarty should be allowed to stay on the job after next Monday, affects one of the most important non-elected positions in state government.
A powerful consumer advocate, the insurance commissioner sets insurance rates, monitors the financial health of insurance companies and protects consumers from unscrupulous practices. The agency regulates insurance on property, cars, health and workers’ compensation.
Scott and the three Cabinet members held public interviews Tuesday with four finalists, but it was a perfunctory exercise, and it was clear the governor had made up his mind.
After the interviews, he read a prepared statement again offering the post to Jeffrey Bragg of Palm Harbor, a former federal insurance official with no state experience — in other words, an outsider with no ties to the Tallahassee establishment or to McCarty’s agency.
Bragg, 67, has four decades of experience in the private and public sector. He built a federal terrorism risk insurance program after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
“He’s an accomplished professional,” Scott said. “His tremendous subject matter and operational knowledge of the insurance industry make him an undeniable fit.”
But after Scott offered the job to Bragg, an icy silence followed, lasting for 22 seconds.
By law, Scott and Atwater must agree on an insurance regulator for Florida, the state with the nation’s highest flood insurance rates, a looming crisis over long-term health care insurance and the country’s longest coastline that is exposed to catastrophic hurricanes.
Adding to a growing sense of instability, Scott also rejected McCarty’s proposal to stay on beyond his planned May 2 resignation date, to ensure a smooth transition at the outset of storm season.
“I think we need to have a permanent replacement,” Scott said.
Scott said he was not aware of McCarty’s offer to delay his departure. McCarty’s office said it hand-delivered identical letters to Scott and all three Cabinet members last week explaining his proposal.
Scott said McCarty can’t extend his tenure unless he is formally reappointed by Cabinet vote.
“Until a new commissioner is found, he’s the commissioner,” Atwater said of McCarty. “There was no action to remove the commissioner, so I don’t know where I would see action that is necessary.”
Scott offered two new candidates for the job, both of them deputy commissioners who work for McCarty: David Altmaier, 34, and Richard Robleto, 65.
They will be interviewed by phone at Friday’s special meeting, which must be publicly announced within 24 hours.
Atwater’s favorite for the job remains Rep. Bill Hager, R-Delray Beach, an expert witness in insurance litigation and arbitrator who made an earnest pitch for the job in his second interview.
“I know insurance and I know consumers,” Hager said. “I’m unafraid to lead, and unafraid to take the heat.”
As Hager spoke, Scott’s attention visibly wandered as he shuffled papers and gazed around a mostly empty Cabinet room.
Scott and the Cabinet also interviewed Bragg for a second time Tuesday and held first interviews with McCarty’s chief of staff, Belinda Miller, and Ray Blacklidge, a career insurance executive from Pinellas Park.
As the impasse persisted, Attorney General Pam Bondi voiced frustration with both Scott and Atwater.
“Gentlemen, if you’re not going to budge on one of these candidates, then you need to say that so we can strike them off the list and move on,” Bondi said.
Atwater said the lack of a consensus after only two tries shows that the system works, and that the Legislature intended that “no individual could influence a unique outcome” in the hiring of an insurance commissioner.
“This was what was actually meant to happen,” said Atwater, whose financial agency works most closely with the insurance department. “I don’t find… that we’re doing anything other than serving the people of Florida just as this was designed to do.”
The third Cabinet member, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, said the window of time to make a decision that affects Florida consumers is rapidly closing.
“We’re running out of runway here,” Putnam said.
McCarty, the first appointee to regulate Florida’s volatile insurance market, worked for three governors and guided the state through a series of devastating hurricanes in 2004 and 2005.
But the skies have been quiet since, and many Floridians weren’t here during those storms.
As McCarty left what was likely his final Cabinet meeting, he emphasized the need for residents to be vigilant.
“We’ve gone a long time without a storm, so there’s kind of a culture of amnesia,” McCarty said.