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In Florida Senate, pay cuts get personal

The Legislature sometimes sounds like a couple who argue constantly about money.

The topic got personal this week over a provision in the proposed Senate budget to cut lawmakers' pay 6 percent, to about $30,000 a year.

This is mostly for show — to let state workers and their constituents know lawmakers are willing to share the pain.

Sen. Al Lawson of Tallahassee, the Democratic caucus leader who's running for Congress, said the idea of cutting lawmakers' pay "offended" him and tried unsuccessfully to remove the pay cut.

"Members currently make around $29,000, or something like that," said Lawson, a legislator since 1982. "You have some members, this is all they do. This is their job."

Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a backer of the pay cut, shot back: "If anyone ran for office because they need a salary, they should never have run. … We're not up here for the salary. We're up here to do good policy."

Fasano's words upset Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach, who interpreted him to mean that only well-off people should be in the Legislature.

"We're saying you have to have money and if you don't have it, you don't belong here," Lynn said. "It is practically telling people, if you don't have money, you're not going to make it in this country. … I want everyone to have a fair shot at being a representative or a senator."

That is an issue worth debating in greater detail.

Lynn has a net worth of $1.2 million. Lawson's net worth is $1.7 million. Fasano has a net worth of $1 million, much of it from a healthy 401(k) account.

(Net worth is the value of all assets, including furniture, cars, property and savings, minus liabilities like mortgages and credit cards.)

Lawson blasted Fasano, calling him totally out of touch. He was gaveled out of order and told not to personalize his comments.

"He might bully you all, but he don't bully me," Lawson said. "He's not respectable."

It's probably good that the 6-foot-7 Lawson didn't sit near Fasano.

They clashed two weeks ago when Lawson tried to relax the lobbyist gift ban by allowing freebies up to $20. Fasano led the opposition in killing the idea, calling it unbelievable.

As many people know, Florida legislators enjoy the perk of free health insurance.

They cut their pay 5 percent this year, to $30,336 a year. Their salaries are scheduled to increase to $31,932 on July 1, but a 6 percent cut would lower them to $30,018 a year.

It's probably heresy to argue that legislators are underpaid, but many of them are, and two arguments can be made in favor of a bigger salary.

Higher pay would encourage more people of modest means to run, making the Legislature more diverse.

A higher salary also might reduce the urge by legislators to supplement their income by forming political committees filled with lobbyist money.

The author of the pay cut is Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Winter Haven, chairman of the Budget Committee (net worth: $11 million). He said his motivation was that if higher-paid state workers are coping with wage freezes or small cuts, legislators should not be immune.

"I thought this would be an easy one," he said. "Apparently, it didn't work out that way."

Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.

In Florida Senate, pay cuts get personal 04/10/09 [Last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009 8:19pm]
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