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  1. Florida Politics

For 2015 Florida Legislature, simply no end in sight

It's a good thing for Florida taxpayers that state legislators don't get paid by the hour.

For this looks like the year that proponents of bigger or better government are getting what they've always wanted: a full-time Legislature — at least for a while.

After the regular 60-day session broke down in a major philosophical fight over health care, legislators needed an extra three weeks to finish the budget.

Now they need two more weeks, starting next Monday, to fix flawed boundaries of eight congressional districts — two of them in Tampa Bay — that the state Supreme Court said were rigged by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2012 to protect incumbents or parties in violation of the state Constitution.

After that comes Special Session C, for up to three weeks starting Oct. 19, to redo Senate districts after the Legislature conceded that those also violated two voter-approved "fair districts" amendments that prohibit political gerrymandering. It's triple overtime.

It's possible legislators will need even more time to extend the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Throw in the weeks of Nov. 16 and 30 for regular committee meetings and the earlier-than-usual start of the 2016 session next Jan. 12, and it's little wonder that voters so often confuse their part-time Tallahassee representatives with full-time members of Congress who live in Washington most of the time.

The last time there were four special sessions in the same year was in 2007, in Charlie Crist's first year as governor — but none lasted more than five days.

Is this what Republicans mean when they talk about "limited government?"

That's a lot of legislating for a job that pays $29,697 a year (along with generous health insurance coverage, travel allowances and other perks). It's described as part-time but it's not, and the demands of the job are high.

Still, nobody feels sorry that legislators have to spend half of August cooped up in the Capitol to comply with the Constitution.

The League of Women Voters of Florida and other groups sued the state and the Supreme Court agreed in a 5-2 decision that the redistricting lines were illegal.

Some Republicans see a liberal and power-hungry Supreme Court at work. But most of them lack the pure chutzpah of Rep. Mike Hill, R-Pensacola Beach, who wants the House to ignore the court and subpoena the five justices in the majority to force them to testify under oath about their decisionmaking.

Across the aisle, Rep. Mark Pafford of West Palm Beach, the House Democratic leader, sees a correlation between the paltry pay and the Legislature's work product.

"For $29,000 a year, you're going to get mistakes and you're going to get the problems that force us into special sessions," Pafford says. "The people of Florida are getting gypped in terms of the Legislature not paying enough attention to issues."

Pafford has a point. But what he's saying is heresy to many taxpayers.

In the third-largest state, Pafford argues, legislators deserve a full-time salary and complex issues require more time than a 60-day session provides (this year the House was in full session for 21 days and the Senate for 23).

Consider this: Higher pay might also make the Legislature more attractive to more people of limited means. But voters probably would never say yes to that.

Contact Steve Bousquet at bousquet@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.

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