More and more ‘special’ sessions: Will FL Legislature ever review changing the way it operates?
Since the last regular legislative session in March 2022 — normally a 60-day job to deal with Florida’s business — three “special” sessions cropped up in the state capital located in Tallahassee:
The first one was in April, about congressional redistricting. The next two were in May and then December, about salvaging the state’s property insurance reform crisis.
And don’t forget two other special sessions in 2021, on COVID-19 mandates, and the Seminole Tribe gaming compact. Now that it’s 2023, there’s been talk of potential special sessions related to Walt Disney World and abortion restrictions.
Is this too much?
The extra unscheduled legislative days — which have a hefty price tag — have prompted one state lawmaker to question if the system is working the way it should.
“We can’t do the work of 23 million people in the state of Florida in 60 days. We simply can’t do it, and we’re not doing it,” says North Fort Myers House Republican Spencer Roach. “I don’t think that’s a point that’s even arguable.”
Roach says it’s past time for the state to consider proposals to not only extend the length of the regular legislative session, but also review lawmaker pay and a prohibition on fundraising during committee weeks, when lawmakers begin working on legislation in the lead-up to the regular session.
Although it’s been self-labeled as a part-time legislature, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCLS) lists Florida as one of 26 so-called “hybrid” states.
“Legislatures in these states typically say that they spend more than two-thirds of a full-time job being legislators,” writes the NCLS, which adds that “it’s usually not enough to allow them to make a living without having other sources of income.”
It started small, but …
Florida started as a very small state in population with just a thirteen-member Legislative Council, says Florida Atlantic University Professor Kevin Wagner — but that was a long time ago.
“While the legislature has grown along with the state, there is still a bit of romanticism around the idea of a ‘citizen-legislature’ reflecting our roots as a small state run by people who come up to the capitol for a couple of months to do the business of governing and then go home,” Wagner tells the Phoenix an email.
“In truth, we are one of the largest states in the union with very difficult issues that face us each year and the burdens on legislators make it very hard to pretend that it is a part time job that can be handled in a short time.”
Among the ten most populous states, only Georgia’s legislature meets for fewer days than Florida’s; The Peach state’s Constitution explicitly states that it meet for no more than 40 legislative days. And while the country’s second largest state, Texas, has their legislature only meet up once every other year, their sessions can go up to 140 days, which divided by two, is still more scheduled days than when Florida lawmakers are expected to complete their business for the entire year.
Last year’s regular session was extended just an additional day so it could pass the state budget. Combined with the two special sessions (the third one in December was already scheduled as a committee week), and those extra days cost Florida taxpayers $265,304, according to data presented by legislative staff.
“You take just me in southwest Florida as one person: They’re paying for my airfare to and from Tallahassee, which is probably about $1,500,” Roach says. “They’re paying for me to stay in a hotel for a week, which at the DoubleTree, let’s say it’s $200 a night. And then they are paying me a per diem to eat while I’m up there… You can do the math on that for one legislator and then multiply it by 160 (legislators).”
Meanwhile, members of the Legislature — the House and Senate members — make only $29,697 annually, with some exceptions.
Former St. Petersburg Mayor and Democratic House member Rick Kriseman derides the salaries that state lawmakers make as “ridiculous.”
“All it does is encourage two types of elected officials: those who are wealthy, and those who are retired,” he says.
That said, according to a 2021 report from the group New American Leaders, nearly 78 percent of Florida’s legislators report having a second source of income from another occupation. Of the remaining 22 percent, nearly seven percent reported drawing income from Social Security, retirement or investment income. The remaining 15 percent reported their salary from the state as their only source of income.
Kriseman says that he had his own law firm when he was first elected to the House in 2000, but he quickly realized that there was no way that he could represent his clients properly when he was spending so much time in the Capitol.
“I ended up closing my own firm and joining with another firm and obviously they knew that I was going to be gone for periods of time,” he says. “And even when you’re not in session, you still have to go to your legislative office. You still need to hold office hours. Even if you’re not completely gone, you’re still spending time away from what your primary income source is.”
An honest conversation?
Roach says the idea of a “citizen legislature” with the current salary structure simply isn’t viable.
“If you want to take the average Floridian … that works in a profession like a police officer or a firefighter and they have a family of four, it’s absolutely impossible for them to come up here and spend four months away from their family for $29,000 a year and still retain their job at home. It’s just not possible,” he says.
Professor Wagner says most Florida lawmakers don’t dare bring up the issue of higher pay, no matter how relevant it might be.
“The problem is that is difficult for politicians to propose the kind of changes that seem to elevate their importance or raise their own salaries,” he says. “But, it is probably past time to have an honest conversation about it.”
State legislators passed legislation in 1985 that set the salaries of Senate and House members at $18,000 and to provide for annual increases. But those increases have stayed stagnant when it went to $29,697 more than three decades ago.
Dominic Calabro, the president and CEO of Florida TaxWatch, says that state lawmakers have chosen to defer raising their salaries ever since then. He says he can see why it’s “potentially problematic” if they would vote to raise their salaries, adding that TaxWatch “would absolutely support an appropriate increase to keep the Legislature vital.”
He adds that it’s obviously never been much of a deterrent in getting people to run and that lawmakers don’t serve for the money, and others agree.
“The salaries should probably be a little bit more competitive, but no one’s doing it for the money, anyway,” says Hillsborough County Republican House member Mike Beltran.
Florida lawmakers are in Tallahassee this week for their third official committee week ahead of the regular session, with three more slated for February. Unlike the much-hyped ban on fundraising during the 60-day session, lawmakers are free to raise money during these weeks.
Roach filed a campaign finance reform proposal in the 2022 session that would have banned fundraising during committee weeks, which he labels an “orgy of fundraising, subsidized by the taxpayers.”
Not surprisingly, it didn’t get very far.
“There were more fundraisers held on Adams Street during the last committee week than there were bills heard in the Florida Senate and Florida House during that same period of time,” he says, referring to the December special session on property insurance. “What this has evolved to is a taxpayer subsidized fundraising circuit during committee weeks where the main priority is fundraising and a tertiary – not even secondary – but a tertiary consideration is hearing bills in committee.”
Roach says he’s received little positive feedback when discussing these issues with his colleagues in the past couple of years, but he believes they’re essential for the Legislature to be effective for all Floridians moving forward.
He suggests that it may take the much-maligned Constitutional Revision Commission to take up these proposals (the CRC is not scheduled to meet again until 2038, however).
“I just don’t see you ever getting a legislative pay raise through the political process,” he admits. “It might be 100 years from now when legislators are still making $29,000 a year. I’ve been working on this now for three years, and I’ve gotten zero headway in the political process.”