TALLAHASSEE — Amid back-slapping and self-congratulatory remarks, state lawmakers passed a new rule Tuesday that they say will require them to actually live in the districts they represent.
"We now for the first time have standards in our rules," Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford said after the rule change was passed unanimously in both chambers. "It's a great day for us."
If such a rule sounds like a no-brainer, guess again.
Last year, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, found out the hard way that such a rule actually wasn't on the books.
His discovery came when he began pushing Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to investigate questions regarding the residency status of certain Democratic lawmakers — Sen. Maria Sachs, Delray Beach; House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, Fort Lauderdale; Rep. Joe Gibbons, Hallandale Beach; Rep. Jared Moskowitz, Coral Springs; Rep. Ricardo Rangel, Kissimmee; and Rep. Alan Williams, Tallahassee.
Latvala swears this isn't a political crusade. Still, Sachs did defeat one of Latvala's allies in the Senate in the 2012 election who would have boosted his chances of becoming Senate President in 2016.
Prosecuting this infraction proved difficult. Last summer, a review of Florida's 160 lawmakers by the secretary of state determined that all of them are registered to vote in the district they were elected to represent.
That didn't satisfy Latvala.
"I could change my voter registration to say I live in Timbuktu, but that doesn't mean I live there," he said.
So he pushed for more clarification.
Under the rule change, to be considered a resident of their district, lawmakers must demonstrate that they live there. They can do that a number of ways, including making sure their home address appears on a legal document, having the address on their voter registration, producing proof that they have a homestead exemption for their residence, having the address listed on a driver's license; proving their spouse and children live there, and showing that this is where the lawmaker receives mail. The rule does not specify how many of these conditions must be met.
Lawmakers also must affirm they live in their district by signing a statement. If a complaint is filed against them, a special master will consider all information that pertains to their residency.
Complaints would be filed with the House or Senate rules committees. Whether a member has violated the rule would be determined by his or her peers. Any lawmaker who refuses a summons by a special master investigating residency could face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to three months in jail.
But questions remain. If a lawmaker separates from a spouse and moves out of the marital home, does that violate the rule's provision that "one's spouse and minor children maintain a legal residence"? What matters more, the address on a lawmaker's electric bill or the one on a voter registration card?
For now, Latvala said he was convinced the rule eliminates the confusion on the issue.
"It's a big win and important in a representative democracy to have lawmakers living amongst us," Latvala said.
Asked if any complaints were pending because of the rule change, Latvala replied: "I don't have any in the works, but it very well could be."
Times staff writer Tia Mitchell contributed to this report. Michael Van Sickler can be reached at [email protected]