Call it the Millionaire’s Club.
The Florida Legislature is home to more than 50 millionaires, according to a News Service of Florida analysis of financial disclosure forms. Lawmakers are required to report their income and net worth once a year.
The Legislature tends to attract wealthy individuals due, in part, to its heavy time commitment and low salary. Legislators receive $29,697 a year, with presiding officers making $41,181 a year. The Legislature meets once a year for two months for its regular session, but lawmakers are often called in for committee weeks or special sessions – and they also have to spend a lot of time campaigning and fundraising.
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“It’s a difficult position if you are working a nine-to-five job to say ‘Hey, I’m going to give up my clients for four months,’ and then come back to that world for six months,” said Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, one of the wealthiest legislators. “Most people can’t do that.”
Millionaires make up almost half of the 40-member Florida Senate and nearly one-third of the 120-member Florida House. Fifty-one of the lawmakers that filed financial disclosure forms by the July 1 deadline were millionaires. Not all lawmakers filed a financial disclosure form by the deadline – more than 30 lawmakers failed to turn one in. They get a grace period before they’re penalized for being late.
The wealthiest legislator in the House is Brandes, with a net worth of $11.8 million at the end of 2010. His family sold its ownership of Cox Lumber Co. to Home Depot in 2006 for an undisclosed sum.
Brandes said he manages his family’s real estate investments in Florida and the Cayman Islands. The former military officer is also involved with his family’s new timber company venture called Tibbetts Lumber Co. Brandes had an income of $181,540 in 2010, money that mainly came from his investments.
“When you think about who could give up four or five months out of the year, (for) an employee it would be very difficult,” Brandes said. Many lawmakers have owned their own businesses or are retired.
“One of the blessings of my position is that I have opportunities to pursue my passions and things I am really interested in,” Brandes said. “I am fortunate to be able to do this more or less full time.”
In the Senate, Don Gaetz holds the distinction of being the richest senator. Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, was the founder of VITAS, a hospice care company, and has a net worth of nearly $25.5 million.
His assets included nearly $11.9 million in securities, nearly $10 million in real estate and about $3.2 million in cash. The real estate includes three homes in the upscale community of Seaside.
Margate Democrat Jeremy Ring, the Senate’s second-wealthiest member, helped build his $17.9 million net worth as an executive with the Internet company Yahoo. Among his assets are a $1.6 million home in Parkland.
Not everyone in the Legislature is wealthy. There are six lawmakers in the House with a negative net worth.
Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres has the distinction of having the lowest net worth in the Legislature. Caldwell is a real estate appraiser who purchased his home at the height of the housing boom.
He watched as the value of his $144,000 investment shrank to about $25,000 as hard-hit Lehigh Acres became the epicenter of the national housing bust.
“I tell people I’m nothing special, I’ve experienced the same types of challenges that many other people have gone through,” said Caldwell, whose net worth as of Dec. 31 was negative $125,000.
But Caldwell says he’s keeping it all in perspective. He turns 30 in August and he only loses money on his property if he sells, which he has no plans of doing anytime soon. “I consider myself fortunate,” Caldwell said. “I’ll have my house paid for by the time I’m 40 years old. That’s pretty good.”
Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, reported a net income of negative $69,177. Pafford is in a similar situation to Caldwell and many other Floridians. He purchased his West Palm Beach home in 2003 for $124,900. It is now worth $92,100, but Pafford still owes $216,000 on the mortgage and home equity loans.
“The Legislature is a citizen’s legislature and should be made up that way,” Pafford said. “As much as I’m struggling, that is OK because there are a lot of other people doing the same thing, just working and trying to pay down bills. That is reality.” Pafford acknowledged, however, that the legislative system is not built to elect “average Floridians.”
Damien Filer, a spokesman for the progressive advocacy group Progress Florida, said the confluence of wealth and legislation is troubling. Likewise, lawmakers of overly modest means can also find themselves in compromising circumstances.
“There is an inherent danger anytime money and policymaking mix,” Filer said. “We have a system that is far too much a pay-to-play situation.”
–Lilly Rockwell and Michael Peltier, News Service of Florida