In tough economic times, Republican candidates for House District 48 say their ability to get by on little money is an asset.
Recently divorced incumbent Rep. Peter Nehr's only income is the $30,000 he's paid to be a state legislator.
Challengers Marg Baker receives $16,049 a year in Social Security benefits and Steven Mueller lists $5,350 in income for 2009 on his state financial disclosure form.
"This is one of the reasons I want to be in the Legislature," said Baker, 69, a self-described conservative. "I know how to get a lot from a little, and I will handle the taxpayers' dollars. I have always handled financial situations better than anyone I was exposed to. I've always been able to live very well on whatever income I made."
Nehr, 58, is seeking his third term for the seat that extends through most of northern Pinellas County and a sliver of Pasco County. The winner of the Aug. 24 Republican primary will meet Tom McKone, a Democrat and chairman of the East Lake Fire District Commission, in the Nov. 2 general election.
Last year, Nehr filed for personal bankruptcy and closed the Tarpon Springs flag shop that he owned for 18 years.
Nehr had $188,661.38 in assets but $508,211.12 in liabilities, according to court documents filed in U.S. Bankruptcy Court.
"If a guy can't balance his own checkbook, who wants someone like that representing the district?" Mueller asked.
Even though he questions Nehr's money management skills, Mueller, 41, would not discuss his personal finances any further than what he reported on disclosure forms in which he listed his net worth at $500,000. He has a $90,000 mortgage on his $162,720 home but only listed the $5,350 in salary for 2009.
Mueller, who loaned himself $20,000 to kick-start his campaign, said he did well before the country's financial crash. He worked as a broker at Morgan Stanley in 2003 and 2004 and Oppenheimer & Co. from 2005 to 2008.
Mueller said he has several non-interest-bearing checking accounts with less than $100,000 in each.
Mueller said the ability to handle personal finances is a strong indication of how the public's money will be managed in Tallahassee.
"I'm financially responsible for my obligations," Mueller said. "I've never defaulted, never declared personal bankruptcy, and I'm never going to. "
Baker, a retired real estate broker who has paid off her Palm Harbor home, takes exception with Mueller's approach.
She said she filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics against Mueller, saying he did not accurately complete the financial disclosure form. The Florida Commission on Ethics would not confirm or deny that a complaint had been filed.
"I can only check public record and if a name does not show up in our public record, I can't confirm or deny," said Kerrie Stillman, spokeswoman for the Ethics Commission. "Any complaint received in our office by law is confidential and exempt from public record."
Stillman said complaints become public record once the commission rules on the issue. Written notice waiving confidentiality also can be given by the person against whom the complaint has been lodged.
Nehr said his current financial situation will have no bearing on his ability to adequately represent the people of the district. In April, he and his wife of 20 years, Anita, divorced.
Nehr said he now rents a room in a Palm Harbor townhome owned by Dennis and Kim Baptista. He said he can make do on the salary received from being a state legislator.
"The only bills I have are my rent, my utilities and my car payment," Nehr said. "I have no other bills. I will be able to maintain the standard of living that I'm living now."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com or (727) 445-4174.