Late last week, Florida CFO Jeff Atwater announced that, instead of running for another office in 2018, he will take a gig at Florida Atlantic University later this year, vacating the office of CFO.
That announcement gave a speech from Atwater to Jacksonville’s Economic Roundtable — his first major speech since announcing his plans to leave the CFO slot — a bit more weight and general interest than it might have had otherwise.
Media was told at first, regarding the scramble to replace him as CFO, that the decision was “too new” for him to talk.
But it came up, even in the introductory remarks, when the speaker quipped that “47 people” had told him Atwater was leaving … however, the show goes on all the same.
“I’ve had the privilege to be in Tallahassee for 17 years, and Mrs. Atwater’s calling me home,” Atwater said. “I have about 120 days to go.”
Among Atwater’s new mission: building “strategic partnerships” for the university in his hometown.
“It’s been the honor of a lifetime,” Atwater added, drawing a line between his political endeavors and the beginning of his career with Barnett Bank in Jacksonville in 1981, before discussing changes that hit Florida’s and the United States’ economy since the latter part of the last decade, when contraction set in.
Unemployment rose. Housing prices fell. Credit ratings were imperiled.
Atwater then discussed the process of moving forward from the doldrums of the last decade.
“The gap in our books was not as critical,” Atwater said, “as the gap in the books of every small business in Florida.”
The newspapers, except for the Florida Times-Union, didn’t buy in.
But “we had to make some really hard decisions,” said Atwater, including cutting taxes and spending, while boosting reserves — at a time when other states were hiking taxes.
By 2015, top line revenue was up, population was booming, and housing prices were nearly up to where they were in 2006 .. before the last bubble popped.
45 states, meanwhile, increased taxes. Over half of the states increased their debt ratio.
Florida was one of three that took a different path, Atwater said.
Florida’s AAA credit rating speaks to the enduring benefit of moving “quickly and decisively.”
“New York is smaller now than Florida,” in terms of economic performance, despite a budget with half the money in it than the Empire State has.
The influx of residents and income into Florida: $75 billion of household income over the last decade, coming at the expense of big states elsewhere, such as New York, Illinois, and California.
A low debt burden and new economic influxes give Florida an advantage other states do not, Atwater said.
“It took a tremendous amount of being in sync to accomplish all of this,” Atwater said, crediting Gov. Rick Scott for his attention to these issues.
“I know it doesn’t look that way all the time, but it takes a lot of teamwork,” Atwater said.
There are challenges: the expanding cost of Medicaid, said Atwater, threatens the state’s finances.
Because of Medicaid and educational costs growth, Atwater issued a common refrain: “it’s going to be a very tight fiscal year” with “hard decisions.”
Atwater did make time for questions from this outlet after the meeting.
The one of most interest: was he leaving too soon, with Gov. Scott headed into the lame duck portion of his second term.
Any “apprehension … second thoughts … or misgivings” Atwater feels about leaving, he said, only has to do with himself and the timing of the departure.
“I hope I can leave a legacy,” Atwater said.
With challenges around the corner, expect that the governor will want someone as dedicated to “fiscal discipline” as Atwater in the role.
The question soon enough will become who that person is.
Monday, however, was a victory lap for Atwater, who served as the state’s CFO as Jacksonville and the rest of Florida recovered, for the most part, from the bubble and the crash of last decade.