Tallahassee, FL - With multi-millionaire Republican Rick Scott heading into the governor’s office, Florida voters also are turning to a Legislature packed with millionaires to lead the state out of its long and deep economic trench.
A News Service of Florida review of financial disclosure reports filed by lawmakers shows that almost half of the Florida Senate and more than one-third of state House members have a net worth topping $1 million.
But perhaps more reflective of a state with a million people out of work and home foreclosures among the worst in the nation, another half-dozen lawmakers are reporting negative net worth, with more liabilities than assets. Such signs of red ink are rare among state elected officials but in most cases, the current roster involves lawmakers heavily mortgaged on homes with plummeting values.
“You see it all in this state, in this economy, so I guess you’d see it in the Legislature, too,” said Sean Snaith, a University of Central Florida economist.
“For the wealthier legislators, maybe they’re able to win saying they can transfer a set of skills from business to politics,” he added. “We’ve already heard Scott say you can run state government like a business.
And what of those whose finances have been buffeted by the tough economy? Snaith says they may legislative differently.
“For legislators financially underwater, you’d think these guys come in feeling empathetic to those out of work or facing foreclosure,” he said.
The wealthiest lawmakers in the Senate and House, respectively, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Rep. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, both made millions from business sales in recent years.
Florida’s wealthiest official with a reported net worth of $21.4 million, Gaetz in 2004 sold his interest in a hospice services company that he started and owned for 21 years. Brandes, who is worth $11.7 million, benefited from the sale of his family’s lumber company four years ago.
Both men now have extensive real estate and investment holdings.
For his part, Gaetz has plenty of wealthy company in the Senate, where 18 of the current 39 members are millionaires.
In the 120-member House, 34 have a net worth in excess of $1 million -- with half of the House millionaires, like Brandes, part of the chamber’s freshman class swept into office earlier this month. Some, however, like new Reps. Irv Slosberg, D-Boca Raton, and Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, are returning to the Legislature after being out of office a few years.
Unlike Scott, who spent $73 million from his own pocket on his own campaign, none of the Legislature’s millionaires spent heavily in their races. But like Scott, who as a candidate pointed to his business success as proof that he could turn around a state staggered by nearly 12 percent unemployment, wealthier representatives and senators may have carried a certain aura with voters this campaign season when the economy took center stage.
Gaetz, however, said his bankbook had little to do with his political popularity.
“I don’t believe the people of Northwest Florida elected me to the Senate because of my wealth,” said Gaetz, elected without opposition to a second, four-year term. “They elected me because we shared the same values.”
Gaetz also said he doesn’t think his wealth shields him from understanding difficulties faced by Floridians in a down economy. He chaired a Senate select committee on the economy the past two years and is now playing a central role in legislative efforts to rein-in Medicaid spending.
“The greatest danger for losing touch with the needs and aspirations of the people is not that someone is successful, but it’s a politician who begins to breath totally his own carbon dioxide,” Gaetz said. “I’ve seen elected officials of very modest means get very full of themselves.”
Brandes said the Legislature’s concentration of wealthier Floridians is a product of the time-consuming task of being a lawmaker.
“The demands of the job are full-time, but the pay is part-time,” Brandes said. “You have to be successful and relatively comfortable to run for office. That’s not necessarily right, but it is what it is.”
But several House members’ belie Brandes’ theory. Reps. Clay Ingram, R-Pensacola, James Grant, R-Tampa, Matt Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, Matt Hudson, R-Naples, and Jose Diaz, R-Miami, all reported a negative net worth cause generally by mortgage or student-loan debt.
Caldwell, newly elected from economically battered Lee County, said he feels very representative of his constituents in a county that has led the nation with the highest rates of foreclosures.
“We bought a home in 2005 and got a $150,000 mortgage, and the house is now worth $35,000,” said Caldwell, a real estate appraiser, whose liabilities outstrip his assets and other holdings by $94,326, making him the poorest state legislator.
“Our area is the epicenter of underwater, and I certainly have an appreciation for what people are going through,” Caldwell added. “But it’s also shown me what an effect property taxes can have. If you can reduce people’s carrying costs, then maybe we’re able to start selling and getting some of these homes off the market.”
Lawmakers frequently enact policies with a “ripped from the headlines” perspective that seems heavily influenced by their own experiences. But Karen Woodall, who has long lobbied for low-income Floridians and now works with the liberal-leaning Florida Center on Fiscal and Economic Policy, said it may be hard to predict how the Legislature’s millionaires will rule.
“We’ve seen wealthy legislators who were very progressive and caring to those in need,” Woodall said. “Other times, we’ve had legislators who came up from nothing, but seem to think everybody ought to be able to do what they did.
“All we can do now is watch how they vote,” Woodall said. “We’ll know more about the effect of all these millionaires following the (spring) session.”
Close to half of the Florida Senate and almost one-third of state House members are millionaires, with this month’s elections sweeping a number of wealthier lawmakers into office, state financial disclosure reports show.
Here is a look at Florida’s wealthiest senators and representatives.
Senator Net Worth
Sen. Don Gaetz $21.4 million
Sen. Jeremy Ring $18.6 million
Sen. J.D. Alexander $8.9 million
Sen. Eleanor Sobel $7.2 million
Sen. John Thrasher $7 million
Sen. David Simmons $6.8 million
Sen. Garrett Richter $5.3 million
Sen. Jack Latvala $5.2 million
Sen. Gwen Margolis $5.1 million
Sen. Mike Bennett $3.1 million
Representative Net Worth
Rep. Jeff Brandes $11.7 million
Rep. Irv Slosberg $7.7 million
Rep. Dennis Baxley $6.8 million
Rep. Bill Hager $6.6 million
Rep. Paige Kreegel $6.1 million
Rep. Scott Plakon $5.4 million
Rep. Jimmy Patronis $5.3 million
Rep. Ken Roberson $5.1 million
Rep. John Wood $4.8 million
Rep. Tom Goodson $4.1 million