Pasco's Browning named secretary of state

Early Edition: Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning becomes the first elections expert to head the agency since Florida voters made it an executive branch department in 2003.

Published December 14, 2006

TALLAHASSEE -- Gov.-elect Charlie Crist on Thursday chose  Pasco County Supervisor of Elections Kurt Browning to be secretary of state, taking charge of  Florida’s voting systems at a time when they are again under close national scrutiny.

Browning, 48, becomes the first elections expert to head the agency since Florida voters made it an executive branch department in 2003.

Browning has opposed the need for a paper audit trail on electronic voting machines, which Crist supports, but the appointee quickly put himself in line with his new boss.

"As the incoming secretary, I need to be open about all the technology that’s out there," Browning said. "I believe that voters need to have a high level of confidence in their voting systems.”

Browning, whose county is one of 15 using touch-screen machines, has consistently defended the reliability of the electronic units.But the machines are now at the center of controversy because of 18,000 undervotes in a Congressional election in Sarasota last month, an anomaly that has not escaped the attention of Crist, elections experts or the Legislature.“We certainly can’t ignore it. It’s there, and we want to do what best serves the voters of Florida,” Browning said.

Browning served on an Elections Reform Task Force in 2001 that voted to ban antiquated punch-card voting, and recommended that each county decide whether to switch to touch screens or optical scan ballots.

Browning said the time may have arrived for all 67 counties to use the same system.

"We probably, in all likelihood, need some uniform policy across the state," he said.

With Crist's backing, the state Legislature is likely to reopen the debate over whether touch screens should require a paper trail. No vendor has yet applied to the state to certify such technology.Crist praised Browning for his “exemplary ethics and integrity” and said he’s the right person to ensure the integrity of voting systems in Florida.Browning has been something of a boy wonder in the close-knit community of elections supervisors.

He was first elected to the Pasco post in 1980, at age  22. Under his direction, Pasco has had a lengthy run of problem-free elections, and Browning has never been seriously challenged at election time -- by either party.

Browning was a Democrat until 2002, when he switched parties and became a Republican, and has spent years lobbying state legislators on elections issues.

He has advocated changing the job of election supervisor to a non-partisan position.

As secretary of state, Browning will manage a budget of $167-million and nearly 500 employees. The agency also manages records of Florida corporations, historical resources, cultural affairs and official state archives.The position was elected until 2002 when voters amended the state Constitution by downsizing the size of the Cabinet.Its last elected occupant was Katherine Harris, who oversaw Florida’s presidential recount in 2000. The current secretary of state under Gov. Jeb Bush is Sue Cobb, a businesswoman who formerly ran the Florida Lottery.

Also on Thursday, Crist appointed a new secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration, which manages the state’s massive Medicaid program.He is Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, 41, chief operating officer for the St. Joseph Health Care System, which runs hospitals in California, Texas and New Mexico.He is a former CEO of Atlanta’s Grady Health System, the largest public health care network in the southeastern U.S.

After taking over there in 2003, he virtually eliminated a $60-million deficit, in part by firing inefficient managers and laying off unnecessary workers. A native of Scotland, he has lived in the U.S. since 1992.He said he did not yet know enough about the sweeping overhaul of Florida’s Medicaid program to a market-driven system, which has begun in two large counties.

Agwunobi is the younger brother of John Agwunobi, Florida’s former health director who now works as a top federal health official.He recently resigned as a board member of WellCare, a major Tampa-based managed care company.

Times researchers Angie Drobnic Holan and Deirdre Morrow contributed to this report.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.