Being a Florida lawmaker a path to wealth for many

Published March 27, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — In the wake of the Great Recession, which left the average Florida family struggling to make ends meet, at least one group of people continues to get richer: It pays to be elected to the state House or Senate.

Of the 160 lawmakers elected to the state Legislature, 114 have increased their personal wealth while in office, a Times/Herald analysis of officials' financial statements found.

On average, lawmakers' net worth has more than doubled from the year of their first campaign through 2014. Their incomes have generally risen, too, by 63 percent on average. For some legislators, years spent in elected office have accompanied multimillion-dollar increases to their net worth.

It's a stark contrast to the reality most Floridians face.

The average worker's pay is higher now than in 2010, but it still falls short of the paychecks Floridians brought home before the 2007 downturn, when adjusted for inflation. Many who saw their home values plummet and 401(k)s shredded have never recovered.

"For a lot of people, it seems like they're running in place just to stay where they are," said Scott Brown, chief economist for St. Petersburg-based Raymond James. "A lot of that is the nature of the recession … This wasn't going to be a quick bounce-back."

An economic rift between many elected officials and their constituents isn't necessarily new, said Ben Wilcox, research director at Integrity Florida, a state government watchdog. Even through the recession, the vast majority of lawmakers accumulated wealth.

"It's still a picture of a relatively wealthy group of individuals," Wilcox said. "And in very few cases does it appear that public service is hurting their ability to earn money."

Getting rich in office

When Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, was first elected to the Legislature in 2000, he earned $50,000 a year for his work at the Apopka Area Chamber of Commerce. By 2007, he was preparing for a Senate run and earning twice as much between his House salary and his ongoing work at the chamber.

Then came an even bigger bump. Last year, Gardiner reported earning $297,282, mostly from Orlando Health, where he is now vice president of external affairs and community relations.

"I certainly don't think that my role in the Legislature had anything to do with that," he said. "My hope is that when my time is done in a year, or less than a year, that I'll still be there."

Still, after 14 years as a lawmaker, including through the recession, his net worth has quadrupled and he's earning almost six times more per year.

He's not alone.

All told, 13 lawmakers became millionaires after being elected to the House or Senate. The wealthiest member of the Legislature, Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Nice­ville, saw his net worth rise from $24 million to nearly $27 million during his eight years in office.

House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa became a millionaire while serving in the House, mostly due to a joint investment valued at almost $3 million.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, the Democratic leader from Tampa, wasn't a millionaire when she was elected to the House in 2000, but she is now. Joyner hasn't spent a day out of elected office in that time.

Neither Young nor Joyner responded to requests for comment.

It's nearly impossible to tell whether these financial successes are directly tied to lawmakers' role in the Legislature, but Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Cutler Bay, says he has seen some questionable new jobs.

"Individuals end up getting some interesting promotions or what they consider lateral moves in their careers to the tune of significant bumps in salary," said Bullard, a schoolteacher who earned $54,900 in 2013 and has not yet filed his 2014 financial disclosure. "It should cause people to question. It should make you wonder where those dollars are coming from."

In the Tampa Bay area especially, the wealth of sitting legislators has soared. On average, members of the Legislature from Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties have seen their net worth nearly triple and their incomes jump by almost half in the time since they were first elected.

Much of this comes from big gains by some of the state's richest public officials. Sens. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, crack the top five with personal wealth valued at $21 million and $14 million, respectively.

Side jobs

Lawmakers earning considerable amounts of money from outside jobs and investments is largely a side effect of having a part-time Legislature.

Most years, House and Senate members are expected to be in Tallahassee for just three or four months. They earn nearly $30,000 for the job, which most supplement with other work.

The goal is to ensure that the people writing the laws have experience in the areas they affect, allowing teachers and school administrators to weigh in on education policy and doctors to have a say in health care regulations.

"We want people from diverse backgrounds in the Legislature, whether they have an agricultural background or are a lawyer or a doctor," Gardiner said.

But Wilcox from Integrity Florida worries some perspectives are shut out because low- and middle-income people cannot afford to run for office, let alone leave their jobs for months.

"You would hope that there would be more schoolteachers and regular working people that would be able to run for office and bring that perspective to public policy discussions," he said. "But I think we may be self-selecting the type of people that can actually afford to serve."

This, Wilcox said, could help explain why so many of the people who run for and win seats in the Legislature are wealthy from the get-go.

'Not representative'

Of course, not all lawmakers are wealthy. Many have jobs and financial portfolios that mirror those of their average constituents.

Bullard and Rep. Rene Plasencia, R-Orlando, are both schoolteachers who aren't independently wealthy. Neither are Rep. Bobby Powell, D-Riviera Beach, an urban planner who works at a Palm Beach County design firm, and Rep. Dane Eagle, R-Cape Coral, a Realtor.

About one-third of those serving in the Legislature have watched their personal wealth or income decrease since being elected. And another group has seen only marginal growth.

Many lawmakers are in debt due to student loans or mortgages.

Still, Bullard worries some of his colleagues in the Senate and House do not understand what it's like to live from paycheck to paycheck or worry that the bills won't be paid on time. He says he worries about the disconnect especially when he brings up issues like increasing the minimum wage, a favorite policy of Democrats and a bill he has filed in recent years with no success.

"In terms of who's making what," he said, "it's definitely not representative of the average people in Florida who are still struggling."

Gardiner, however, says the Legislature's commitment to the finances of Florida families is evident in the laws that have passed, including tax cuts and pro-business policies designed to drive job creation.

"The best thing the Legislature and government in general can do is to provide an environment where the free market can thrive," he said.

Contact Michael Auslen at Follow @MichaelAuslen.