Millionaires Make Up One-Third Of Florida Legislature
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
Nearly a third of state lawmakers are millionaires, with two members of the Senate having net worths that top $20 million, according to newly filed disclosure reports.
Almost half of the Senate is in the millionaires club, and more than two dozen senators saw their net worths grow in the past year. Some reports remain to be filed, but so far no senator sits in the red financially, according to the reports posted on the Florida Commission on Ethics website.
In the House, about one-fourth of the 120 members have net worths stretching to seven figures. Twenty-five House members --- including seven of the millionaires --- reported their net worths dropped in the past year. Another nine representatives have negative net worths, including six who each have negative net worths of more than $100,000, mostly because of student or home loans.
The reports, which reflect 2014 finances, were due July 1, but not everyone has filed their paperwork. Rules set by lawmakers mean late paperwork doesn't become an issue until September.
The Senate has some of the wealthiest legislators, topped again by Sen. Don Gaetz, a Niceville Republican who co-founded VITAS Healthcare Corp. and reported a net worth of $26.99 million.
The next highest net worths belonged to Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, at $21.2 million, and Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, at $14.5 million.
Brandes, who made money in real estate, is also a shareholder in Bay Cities Bank in Tampa and Green Bench Brewery in St. Petersburg. Simpson is involved with the family-owned Simpson Environmental Services and Simpson Farms.
Simpson, along with Sen. David Simmons, a Republican attorney from Altamonte Springs, and Sen. Jeremy Ring, a Margate Democrat who is a former executive at Yahoo, each reported incomes topping $1 million in the past year.
At the other end of the fiscal spectrum is freshman Rep. Victor Torres, D-Orlando. The retired New York City Transit Police detective added a residential mortgage to his portfolio in 2014, raising his negative net worth from $28,017 in 2013 to $354,165 last year.
Other House members who have liabilities exceeding assets by more than $100,000 include Republican Danny Burgess of San Antonio and Democrats Katie Edwards of Plantation, Darryl Rouson of St. Petersburg, Edwin Narain of Tampa and Bobby DuBose of Fort Lauderdale.
That's not to say your typical elected representative, with a state salary of $29,697 a year, plus food, lodging and travel expenses, is struggling.
The average net worth of House members --- based on the disclosure reports now available for 2014 --- is $1.27 million. The average grows to $1.386 million if the 2013 totals are added for nine House members who have yet to submit disclosure reports for 2014.
In 2013, before 24 seats were turned over due to term limits and elections, the average net worth of House members stood at $1.374 million.
Democrats in the House who have filed their 2014 papers had an average net worth of $792,019, while the average net worth of the Republicans was $1,721,145.
Last year's wealthiest House member, Miami Republican Michael Bileca, who reported a net worth of $14.2 million for 2013, is among those yet to file. Bileca, who co-founded the Towncare Dental Partnership firm now located throughout Central and South Florida, has requested an extension until Aug. 15.
Ben Wilcox, with the watchdog group Integrity Florida, said state lawmakers have made strides in recent years to improve the financial-disclosure reports, but the information remains vastly incomplete.
"The Commission on Ethics should be given the authority to do random audits of a sample of public officials' financial disclosure reports each year," Wilcox said. "It is a concern that assets can be hidden or moved, thus giving the public an inaccurate picture of an official's assets.
Among the problems with the reports, according to Integrity Florida, is that assets can be easily hidden under a spouse's name, and lawmakers don't have to reveal if firms they own or work for have business before the Legislature or state government. Also, Integrity Florida contends that with the requirement that numbers be based on a single day rather than the full year lawmakers can "secretly engage in major transactions throughout the year undetected."
The July 1 deadline is also a misnomer, Wilcox noted. Besides the ease in which lawmaker can get extensions, late fines of $25 a day --- up to a maximum of $1,500 --- don't begin until Sept. 1.
"The grace period is too long and sends a message that it is not important to meet the July 1 deadline. Ideally the deadline should be the deadline," Wilcox said.
Even without immediate penalties, the majority of lawmakers got their paperwork in on time.
The average net worth of a sitting senator, based upon the 2014 filings, stands at $4.5 million. Last year, the Senate average was $3.59 million, with a total net worth of $143.7 million. Those who have already filed this year reported a combined $144.6 million net worth.
Democrats in the Senate average $3.25 million, while Republicans have a $5.2 million average. The Senate includes 17 millionaires in the 2014 records recently submitted.
Two other senators, Brandon Republican Tom Lee and Bradenton Republican Bill Galvano, have both been above the seven-figure mark in the past, but have requested extensions until Aug. 15 to file the new disclosure forms.
The Senate so far is showing everyone in the black.
Sen. Darren Soto, an Orlando Democrat and attorney who has been steadily paying down home loans, recorded a positive net worth of $28,346 for 2014, an improvement upon a negative $6,663 in 2013 and a $32,351 negative figure a year earlier.
Meanwhile, Sen. Thad Altman, a Rockledge Republican who received $169,891 in 2014 as president and CEO of the Astronauts Memorial Foundation, joined the ranks of millionaires in the past year. Altman reported a net worth of $1,003,878 in 2014, up from $899,676 a year earlier.
Also, the Senate's newest member, Elkton Republican Travis Hutson, posted a net worth of $6.99 million. Hutson, a former House member, joined the Senate this spring after winning a special election in a Northeast Florida district.
Among the most-recent figures for the 40 senators, Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson's $828,099 net worth hugs the median among her colleagues, slightly above the $815,179 reported by Stuart Republican Joe Negron.
Along with Lee and Galvano, senators who had yet to submit disclosure paperwork as of Friday morning were Miami Democrat Dwight Bullard, Lake Worth Democrat Jeff Clemens, Jacksonville Democrat Audrey Gibson, Miami Republican Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, Umatilla Republican Alan Hays and Lakeland Republican Kelli Stargel.
In the House, freshman Rep. Mike Miller, R-Winter Park, stands at the median among his colleagues. Miller's $480,000 is just above the net worth of $478,248 reported by House Speaker Steve Crisafulli. Crisafulli, a Republican from Merritt Island, is involved in the family-owned Crisafulli Builders Inc. Crisafulli's net worth grew $24,259 from year to year.
House members who as of Friday morning had yet to file their financial-disclosure paperwork were Fort Walton Beach Republican Matt Gaetz, Delray Beach Republican Bill Hager, Orlando Democrat Bruce Antone, Orlando Democrat Randolph Bracy, Jacksonville Democrat Reggie Fullwood, West Park Democrat Shevrin Jones, Coral Springs Democrat Jared Moskowitz and Alachua Democrat Clovis Watson.