Rivals for CFO job tout talents

Guiding legislation is key to being chief financial officer, Tom Lee says. Alex Sink stresses business acumen.

Published September 28, 2006

Republican Senate President Tom Lee and Democrat retired banker Alex Sink faced each other Wednesday in the season's first debate between the two candidates for Florida chief financial officer.

The exchange, hosted by the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club, provided a glimpse of how their strategies are shaping up in what could be the most competitive statewide race this year.

Lee, a veteran of the Legislature and a home builder, is running on his legislative record. He spoke of his role in crafting legislation this year intended to curb the rise of property insurance rates, and said he has fought for better long-term financial planning for the state, including a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit how much unexpected windfall money lawmakers can use to pay for annual services.

He also spoke of the law that banned lawmakers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, which he called the crowning achievement of the Legislature.

"People will never trust the message if they don't trust the messenger," Lee said.

Sink, a retired Florida Bank of America president, described Lee as a Tallahassee politician who wants a job that is better filled by a financial leader. She criticized the insurance bill Lee shepherded through the Legislature, saying few knew what was in it because it passed on the last night of the legislative session. And she pointed out that it did nothing to stop insurance companies from dropping Florida policyholders or raising rates in the weeks following its passage. Sink added that as a retired banker, she is more capable of managing the state's financial affairs.

"I'm the only candidate in the race with a clear background of financial experience," Sink said.

The candidates differed in discussing the important characteristics of the CFO job; each emphasized the elements that play to his or her background. For Sink, the CFO job is that of financial adviser and auditor of the state's budget, contracts and investments. She downplayed the partisan elements.

"This is not a legislative job. ... You don't play 'R' or 'D' with $70-billion of your tax dollars," Sink said, referring to the state budget.

Lee said the CFO is the one lawmakers expect to shape insurance and financial legislation. In addition to setting the policy agenda, the CFO must use relationships with lawmakers to get bills passed that will continue to solve the homeowners insurance crisis, Lee said.

"The CFO has to be engaged in the legislative process. You have to know the psychology of those 160 people," Lee said.

Tiger Bay is known for spirited questions posed by its members, and Wednesday was no exception. After listening to Sink tell about a woman who claimed her company was a shoo-in for a state contract because the bid request had been tailored for her, one member asked Sink if she reported what she heard to the state.

Lee challenged Sink to identify the woman.

Sink, who has made increased oversight of the state's privatization contacts a key element of her campaign, declined to identify the woman and said there was nothing to report because the activity isn't illegal - just questionable and "business as usual" for the state.

"I've had several people come and tell me that contracting is not really an open process," Sink said.

After the debate, Lee was asked by a reporter to describe the process by which a private citizen might report concerns about a contract. After suggesting at first a bid challenge (available to those who don't get the bid), and the whistle-blower law (which protects state employees) Lee said he was unfamiliar with a specific way for private citizens to alert the state to misdoings in state contracts.

But that shouldn't have stopped a CFO candidate from trying anyway, Lee said.

"She could have tried and she could try today - it's not too late," he said.

As it turns out, there is a hotline - 1-800-438-5326 - where Floridians can report waste, fraud and abuse in state government.

It's run by the CFO.