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PolitiFact Florida | St. Petersburg Times
Sorting out the truth in state politics

PolitiFact Florida: Freshmen form one-third of state House

Term limits for Florida's state representatives and senators result in a lot of turnover in Tallahassee after an election.

So after the Nov. 2, 2010, election, how many freshman House members will there be in 2011?

GOP House Speaker Dean Cannon quantified it this way in an interview posted on the St. Petersburg Times blog the Buzz on Dec. 8. The paragraph starts with a paraphrase:

"Cannon pointed out that freshmen lawmakers account for one-third of the 120-member House, and that two-thirds of the chamber have two years or less experience," the Buzz wrote, then quoted Cannon: "One of the things I'm really focused on is trying to put people where they can best get up to speed and hit the ground running once we start committee meetings in January."

If Cannon is right, the majority of the incoming House would have two years of experience or less — a high number. Those are the numbers we're checking.

First, some background on term limits. A Feb. 7, 2010, article in the St. Petersburg Times contains some useful background about Florida's vote in favor of term limits in 1992:

"A string of scandals in Congress spurred a national movement known as term limits aimed at driving career politicians from office. The Florida campaign is known as 'Eight is Enough' and limits Cabinet members and legislators to eight years in office; it passed with a whopping 77 percent in favor. (Ironically, it does not apply to members of Congress). The full effect wouldn't be clear until eight years later, when the eight-year clock kicked in and the state House saw rampant turnover — 63 of its 120 members were freshmen. Term limits are blamed today for an assortment of ills, from myopia among legislators to the exaggerated influence of special interest money, lobbyists and even the media."

We should note some benefits to term limits: Fresh faces may provide new ideas and could be more in touch with constituents.

For some national perspective, the National Conference of State Legislatures says on its website:

"Proposals to limit the terms of state legislators have been the subject of public policy debate since 1990, when citizen initiatives limiting the terms of legislators were passed by voters in California, Colorado and Oklahoma. Subsequently, 18 other states adopted term limits, but in four — Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming — term limits were thrown out by the state supreme courts, and they have been repealed by the legislatures in Idaho and Utah. That leaves 15 states with term limits for legislators."

Now back to the new faces in the 2011 Legislature. Cannon spokeswoman Katie Betta told us she counted 82 freshman or sophomore legislators — 44 of those freshmen — among the 120 state representatives. Betta directed us to the state House website, which has a page of each House member with biographical information, including when each was first elected to the House, including past service.

Here are the totals we found:

Elected in 2007: 5

Elected in 2008: 33

Elected in 2009: 1

Elected in 2010: 43

That puts the total elected between 2007 and 2010 at 82.

Of the 43 elected this year, three had served in the House previously: Dennis Baxley (R-Ocala), 2000-2007; Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), 2000-2008; and Irv Slosberg (D-Boca Raton), 2000-2006. Also, two of the 43 were elected in special elections: Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) on Feb. 23 and Matt Gaetz (R-Fort Walton Beach) on April 13. (Cruz and Gaetz then won re-election to full terms this fall.)

We define "freshmen" as "first-year beginners." If we count as freshmen all 43 members elected in 2010, we get a freshman class that represents about 36 percent of the House. If we don't count Baxley, Harrell and Slosberg since they've already worked through several sessions, the freshmen represent 33 percent.

But Cruz was elected Feb. 23, just before the two-month session started in March. And Gaetz was elected April 13, when that regular session had only about two weeks to go. They participated in votes and had their names attached to bills in 2010. If we omit them, as well as the three who had previously served, that would drop the freshmen to about 32 percent.

Betta says Cannon also counts Mack Bernard, D-West Palm Beach, who won a special election on Sept. 22, 2009, as a freshman, even though he was active in the 2010 session, bringing her total to 44, or about 37 percent.

Any of those figures — 32 percent, 33 percent, 36 percent or 37 percent — are at or very close to the one-third cited by Cannon.

What about Cannon's claim that two-thirds of the members have two years of experience or less? We counted 33 who were elected in 2008, one elected in 2009 and 43 in 2010. That brought our total since 2008 to 77, or 64 percent. If we don't count the three who served previously, thus having more than two years of experience, the share drops to 62 percent. Still close to two-thirds.

So is Cannon correct? He was paraphrased as saying that one-third of the 120-member House are freshmen and two-thirds have two years or less experience. We can split hairs on the experience level of a few of them, but not enough to change his math. We rate this claim True.

The statement

House Speaker Dean Cannon says that freshman lawmakers account for one-third of the 120-member House, and that two-thirds of the chamber have two years or less experience.

Dean Cannon, Dec. 8, 2010, in a newspaper interview

The ruling

We can split hairs on the experience level of a few of them, but not enough to change his math. We rate this claim True.

PolitiFact Florida: Freshmen form one-third of state House 01/02/11 [Last modified: Sunday, January 2, 2011 9:20pm]
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