Jeff Atwater of North Palm Beach announced Friday he plans to step down as the state’s chief financial officer in the middle of his second four-year term to take a post with Florida Atlantic University. In doing so, Atwater leaves open an elected job with big sway over what the state’s consumers pay for insurance and other bills.
His departure — and the matter of who replaces him through 2018 — opens the door to a shift in political leadership overseeing one of the world’s dozen largest insurance markets. By itself, the Florida market — with more than $127 billion in premiums — is bigger than all but seven foreign countries.
Atwater announced that following the 2017 legislative session, scheduled to end in early May, he will accept the position of Vice President of Strategic Initiatives and Chief Financial Officer of FAU, based in Boca Raton.
“While I would have preferred to embrace this opportunity at a later date, the timing of crucial University initiatives warranted an accelerated transition,” Atwater said a statement. “In the near term I will remain focused on the Department of Financial Services’ legislative agenda through the conclusion of the session and provide Gov. Scott sufficient time to thoughtfully consider the selection of Florida’s next CFO.”
Gov. Rick Scott will appoint a replacement for the remainder of the term, CFO spokeswoman Ashley Carr said. A new CFO would be elected in 2018.
Scott and Atwater did not always agree on issues such as who should be insurance commissioner, and how best to balance regulatory changes or higher rates companies advocated against consumer safeguards and concerns about affordability. The governor, CFO and two other Cabinet officers appoint key regulators and vote directly on some policy issues in Cabinet meetings, with the law requiring, for example, that the CFO and governor must agree on an appointed insurance commissioner.
As a GOP legislative leader, former banker Atwater helped construct a glide path of gradual 10 percent rate increases at state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp. rather than steeper hikes. As CFO, he pushed for insurers to lower rates in the wake of reduced reinsurance costs and backed legislation last spring to protect consumers against surprise medical bills.
A replacement who is responsive to consumers, and not just the financial industries who are often big contributors to elected officials, matters a lot, said Chip Merlin, founder and president of a law firm that represents policyholders with offices in Tampa and West Palm Beach.
“I first saw Jeff Atwater’s dedication to policyholders when he was in the Florida Senate and insurance carriers were slow paying after the 2004 hurricanes,” Merlin said. “Jeff stood up for the people and took on the insurance industry. But, he has also shepherded the insurance industry to being in a much stronger and stable condition than what it was a decade ago. He has done a good job and has been a dedicated elected public servant.”
Last spring, Gov. Scott’s nominee for Florida insurance commissioner, Jeffrey Bragg, enjoyed support from industry lobbyists but faced questions about a Palm Beach Post story on a lawsuit claiming he misled investors in a flood insurance venture. Cabinet officials delayed the pick after Atwater declined to back Bragg, with officials later choosing then-deputy insurance commissioner David Altmaier.
Atwater had signaled he was not running for higher office, but his stepping down early as CFO caught many off guard.
“It was a surprise to me,” said Jay Neal, president of the Fort Lauderale-based Florida Association for Insurance Reform, an advocacy group that includes industry representatives. “It’s Florida’s loss. He has to do what’s best for him and his family.”
In a statement, Scott said: “CFO Atwater is a proud Floridian, father, husband and friend and I will truly miss working with him. The role of the CFO is incredibly important to our state and I will begin the process to appoint someone to serve Florida families.”
Olympus Insurance Co. CEO Jeff Scott of Palm Beach Gardens called Atwater “an incredibly bright man” whose departure will be “felt far and wide.”
As for his replacement, the insurance executive said, “I have no doubt that the Governor will seek a replacement that will look to preserve the progress made to date and recognizes that the greatest consumer benefits are derived through regulation that maintains a healthy marketplace and seeks to protect the vast majority of consumers from the misdeeds of a few.”
Atwater was briefly in the running for FAU’s president in 2014. A West Palm Beach lawyer whose firm won a controversial $6.5 million state contract served on an FAU presidential search committee and Atwater met with the firm’s principal two days before the contract, The Post reported. All denied impropriety as university officials ultimately made another pick.
On Friday, Atwater praised FAU’s “truly visionary executive leadership team and faculty” and said he was “honored” to join them.
“As I prepare to exchange my service to the people of Florida from the position of their CFO to the position of CFO of one of the State’s most vibrant universities, I am grateful for the commitment of all those I have served with these past six years and all those I will serve with in the future,” he said.