By Christine Sexton (News Service of Florida)
Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis is a former state representative who was first appointed to the Florida Cabinet post in 2017 by then-Gov. Rick Scott.
The following year, Patronis, a Republican whose family runs the well-known Captain Anderson’s restaurant in Panama City Beach, was elected to a four-year Cabinet term as the state’s chief financial officer.
Patronis is one of three statewide-elected officials who serve on the Florida Cabinet and is one of three trustees who oversee the State Board of Administration, the agency that runs the state’s mammoth pension plan for public employees.
Prior to joining the Cabinet, Patronis served on the Public Service Commission and spent eight years in the Florida House.
Patronis recently has traveled the state on a “restaurant tour,” championing the need for lawsuit limitations amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for Jimmy Patronis:
Q: As Florida’s chief financial officer, you’re charged with oversight of the state’s accounting and auditing functions and unclaimed property. Your office also monitors the investment of state funds, managing the state’s deferred compensation program and division of risk management. You also are the state’s fire marshal. Why are you so interested in liability limitations?
PATRONIS: When it comes to COVID liability, I can’t take my small business hat off. We are in an environment where I’m getting phone calls, emails, every week. And as you can imagine, some of them come from restaurateurs, because that’s where I was at (before politics). And their concerns are, should I leave condiments at the table? Should I put alcohol gel at the table? Should I have my employees wear masks? As I am calling and trying to help give guidance, the constant question is, if I do it all, will I still be sued?
Q: You mentioned “frivolous” lawsuits in the “Guiding Principles on Liability Protections” you issued earlier this year. Do you feel as though frivolous lawsuits are being filed?
PATRONIS: The environment we are in right now, we have already seen some trial balloons float up with Walmart, McDonalds, Amazon. There definitely are some waters being tested. My concern is that if a business model develops, you’re going to create an environment of sue-and-settle tactic.
We saw it a couple of years ago with the Americans with Disabilities Act. You had business owners who did not own their building and you had lawsuits dropped on doorsteps. They said, we’ll settle with you for $5,000 and leave your doorstep. These small businesses have already been through enough.
We do no want to protect any bad actors. There’s no way, shape, or form that we are trying to develop a protection shield over bad players. If you are not abiding by whatever guidelines ultimately maybe a future Legislature adopts, you need to play within those boundaries, those parameters, or you’ll be subject to whatever the courts deem is proper punishment. I’ve even suggested as we talked about this that I don’t have a problem adding a sunset provision to the language. We are in the middle of a pandemic which has created some questions that none of us have ever faced before. And this is why I feel like some protections need to be established.
Q: Let’s switch to workers’ compensation. Early on in the pandemic, you issued an order regarding presumptive eligibility for COVID-19 workers’ compensation claims for certain state employees. Do you feel there should be a similar presumptive eligibility for the commercial workers’ compensation market?
PATRONIS: I run risk management for the state, which means I work for workers’ comp. All of our front-line employees, we said to them, we were going to cover COVID-related clams as workers’ comp claims if they were in the line of duty. We also saw that evolve with the (Florida) League of Cities with their workers’ comp. Then we worked with David Altmaier at the Office of Insurance Regulation to issue a series of directives out of his office.
And you know what? Did we move the needle? We did. We got workers’ comp coverage for individuals that could have a COVID-related claim that probably didn’t have that peace of mind before.
When we do it for our own state employees and the League of Cities does it for all their insurance players, that creates enough momentum usually to get other carriers in the industry to step up.
Q: The property market is under great stress and homeowners’ insurance rates are increasing sharply during an economic downturn. What do you plan to do about this? Should more people be able to join the state run Citizens insurance Company?
PATRONIS: Well, one, 2020 was the most active hurricane season in the history of tracking hurricanes. That doesn’t help. And our carriers, at least the admitted carriers that are based in Florida, they also have exposure in other states. It’s smart to diversify their exposure.
But when you have repeated storms hit the Louisiana coast, you have Hurricane Sally that hits Northwest Florida — even though they may not cause direct loss of life or huge damage losses in Florida — but what it does is those carriers are based in other states. It definitely hits their value and it also hits the reinsurance rates. And just when I thought we would catch our breath, we’ve had some compounding of an active storm season with carriers that deal with global financial security. It’s unfortunate.
Every year that I’ve been in office, we have fought and advocated for measures that curb fraud, waste and abuse in property casualty. We are going to still do it. Ultimately, I hope that Citizens doesn’t become attractive. They do a fantastic job.
But here’s the other thing — the housing market in Florida right now has grown by 26 percent. It’s a market that’s on fire. The market prepares for that by sometimes pricing its rates accordingly because of needing to get capital to make those types of coverages fiscally sound. It’s a challenge. I think some of it will correct with hopefully a year of no storms. But everything about 2020 was just a train wreck, whether it be the virus, whether it be the hurricane season. Hell, I lost my dad in 2020. So it’s just really stunk.
Q: Last year, Gov. Ron DeSantis tried to take some power away from you and other Cabinet members, by having sole discretion over who runs the Department of Environmental Projection and the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. What kind of relationship do you have with the governor?
PATRONIS: Well, one, I think there were some efforts there by motivated legislators. And I think every year we have some member of the Legislature that wants to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the ship. And I get that. That’s fine. I feel like we have a great working relationship with Gov. DeSantis. I think his governance in coordination with the Cabinet over Cabinet-related agencies has been fair, productive, and, through the challenges, good for the citizens of the state of Florida.