LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Jeff Atwater is the guy nobody knows they elected.
At least, that's how Florida's chief financial officer sees himself. The job he holds doesn't quite exist in the 49 other states.
But tasked with oversight of a $70 billion state budget, Atwater believes his position has become more vital than ever as Florida tries to mount a recovery from a recession that's crippled its revenue line.
And he's taking that message to constituents around the state.
Atwater brought a little humor on his trip to Lakewood Ranch on Friday, tossing a few jabs at the federal government while hinting at better days ahead for Florida.
Addressing a roomful of 150 area business executives, elected officials and community leaders at the Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club, Atwater said the biggest hurdles preventing Florida from reaching its potential will be Congress and its inability to come to grips with the U.S. debt.
"We still have our struggles, but I wouldn't want to trade places with any other state," Atwater said. "We are making our way through this."
From a career in banking, Atwater began his run in public office as vice mayor of North Palm Beach before a stint in the Florida House and ultimately the state Senate -- where he spent almost a decade, finishing as senate president. He was elected as Florida's CFO in 2010.
Serving in the place of a state treasurer, Atwater's office provides auditing, accounting, bill pay and oversight for Florida's finances.
The state's top revenue line has shrunk from $28 billion in 2006 to $21 billion just three years later, recovering some to a projected $24.5 billion in the coming budget.
Atwater on Friday praised the steps taken by state officials to trim services accordingly during that time. He couldn't say the same for the White House.
Atwater kept pointing
to the year 1969. Since that time, federal entitlements grew from 28 percent to 66 percent today, the federal government's participation in the GDP climbed to 24 percent, and the amount of working Americans not paying federal income taxes has swelled from 12 percent to nearly 50 percent, he said.
"What's happened since 1969?" Atwater said. "It's up to us. I know what's going to happen in the next 60 days. I have my pick and my preference. No matter how fine-tuned we are in the state, and here in Manatee-Sarasota, we can't overcome that."
Atwater contended that the rising rolls of Medicaid, along with the looming health care overhaul, could cripple the economy.
He also expressed concerns with the costs tied to the state-run Citizens Property Insurance Corp., which has become the largest insurer in Florida with 1.4 million customers.
"Citizens was grown by bad policy and fraud," he said. "I don't think when we started anybody thought it would become this."
Buzzing with political fever as the Republican National Convention nears, the audience applauded Atwater for his leadership.
Friday's luncheon organizers included the Manatee Chamber of Commerce, Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance and Gulf Coast Builders Exchange.
"He has given everyone in this room a much better feeling about what's going on in Tallahassee," said Mary Dougherty-Slapp, executive director of the builder's exchange.
Others shared Atwater's fears of government spending and the cost to support health care.
"I make a living on retirement, selling homes to people that are retiring," said Pat Neal, a prominent area homebuilder and former state lawmaker. "But the cost of their health care is quickly rising, and I just don't know how we solve it."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman.