TALLAHASSEE - After taking over the helm as the Florida's new chief financial officer Friday, Jimmy Patronis repeatedly acknowledged he needs some time getting “up to speed” on a number of key issues that confront his Cabinet office and the state.
Personal-injury auto protection, insurance-related assignment of benefits and even the future of those now working for him are all matters Patronis said he hopes to learn about over the next month - or at least before his first Cabinet meeting on Aug. 16.
“You have to remember I came from the restaurant business, so everybody is a customer,” Patrons told reporters Friday morning after being sworn in to the statewide Cabinet post by Chief Justice Jorge Labarga during a brief ceremony in Gov. Rick Scott's office. “I look forward to learning as much as I can from other stakeholders in this office. And don't worry, CFO (Jeff) Atwater's phone is programmed in my phone and I will be using it frequently.”
The swearing-in was followed a short time later by a more elaborate ceremony in the Capitol courtyard when Patronis, one of the governor's early political allies, was sworn in as the state fire marshal, one of the duties of the CFO.
Scott named Patronis to replace Atwater, who on Friday formally exited the $128,972-a-year statewide elected position he first won in 2010 to take a job as a vice president at Florida Atlantic University.
Appointed by Scott for the third time to a major state role, Patronis comes to the Cabinet job from the Public Service Commission, where he served in a $131,036-a-year job after being tapped by Scott in 2014. The governor also had placed Patronis on the state Constitution Revision Commission, the panel charged with the once-every-20-years task of suggesting changes to the state's basic law.
Patronis, 45, resigned from both posts Sunday.
The Florida Democratic Party earlier this week blasted Scott's selection of Patronis, a Republican who spent eight years in the state House, as “cronyism.”
But Atwater, who attended both ceremonies Friday, praised Scott's pick as “fantastic,” calling Patronis “a man of intellectual strength, curiosity and a passion for the state.”
For decades, the Patronis family has played a major role in Panama City, based in part on its management of the 50-year-old landmark Captain Anderson's Restaurant.
Scott has used the popular eatery as a backdrop for a number of campaign events and public announcements, including Monday when the governor named Patronis as Atwater's successor.
Patronis's restaurant background brings a different set of experiences into the office that in 2002 was created through the merger of the comptroller and insurance commissioner offices.
Atwater, who lives in North Palm Beach, spent years as a banker prior to his election to the Florida House in 2000, where he served for two years before joining the Senate. Atwater spent two years as Senate president before his election as the state's chief financial officer.
Atwater's predecessor, Alex Sink, a Democrat, also came into the office with a hefty resume in finance and banking.
Patronis repeatedly side-stepped questions about high-profile insurance issues when queried by reporters Friday.
Asked for his views about state Insurance Commissioner David Altmaier, Patronis said that is “something I'll get caught up to speed on.”
Scott and Atwater jointly agreed to appoint Altmaier last year after failing to reach consensus on other candidates the two had individually supported.
Patronis was also non-committal when questioned about the future of personal-injury protection auto insurance, the low-cost coverage option known as no-fault, and an insurance practice known as “assignment of benefits.”
Critics argue “assignment of benefits” is riddled with fraud and abuse - particularly in claims for water damage to homes - and is responsible for rising property-insurance premiums.
State legislators have been unable to advance changes to either insurance item over the past few years, and are expected to tackle both issues during the legislative session that begins in January.
“I'm looking forward to seeing the deliberations and debate of the Legislature as they propose policies of the state,” Patronis said Friday.
Atwater has said state lawmakers need to address “assignment of benefits,” while being more direct on the future of “no-fault” auto insurance. Atwater, who had joined Scott in a move to reform no-fault in 2012, has been among those saying repeal of no-fault may be needed if consumers aren't getting the intended relief.