Millionaires add up in Legislature

BY JIM TURNER
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA

TALLAHASSEE – The 2016 Florida Legislature appears to have been the richest in recent history.

The makeup of the 160 members of the 2016 Legislature, considered a “part-time” lawmaking body where people earn about $30,000 a year, featured at least 55 millionaires – three more than in the prior session, according to newly filed financial-disclosure reports.

In 2011, there were 46 millionaires working in the Senate and House, according to disclosure reports required to be filed annually.

Public policy ‘slant’
University of Central Florida political-science professor Aubrey Jewett said there is a “middle- to upper-class slant to Florida public policy” as legislators typically have been wealthier than average constituents. But Jewett, who has co-authored a book on Florida politics, admitted being surprised by the growing number of millionaire lawmakers.

“Clearly, being wealthier gives a candidate a better opportunity to get elected as it allows a person to begin to bankroll their campaign and to have the time to spend on campaigning,” Jewett said.

“You don’t see a lot of blue-collar workers running, as their work schedules tie them down.”

The average net worth of House members who filed by a Friday deadline topped $1.61 million – the reports typically reflect net worths as of the end of 2015 – and the average was $4.54 million for filers in the Senate.

Ben Wilcox, of the Tallahassee-based watchdog group Integrity Florida, said being a legislator takes a “tremendous commitment of time” and the growing trend of millionaires “may indicate that only those with a lot of money can afford to run and serve in a part-time legislature.”

Wilcox said the growing wealth divide between lawmakers and people they represent isn’t likely to change any time soon.

‘Ruling elite’
“We are creating a ruling elite that breathes rarified air,” Wilcox said. “It would take having some difficult conversations about raising legislative pay and reducing the costs of campaigning in order to give average citizens more of an opportunity to offer themselves for public service.”

For this past session, topping the Senate was the $25.04 million by term-limited Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who co-founded VITAS Healthcare Corp. At the lower end of the Senate is Miami Democrat Dwight Bullard, a teacher who had a net worth of $10,287.

The wealthiest House member remains Miami Republican Michael Bileca, the co-founder of Towncare Dental Partnership, at $18.4 million net worth.

Unlike in the Senate where everyone is in the black, eight House members are in the red, with Republican Danny Burgess, an attorney from San Antonio, the deepest underwater at $253,100 – due primarily to $274,290 in student loans.

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