The Florida Legislature that begins its 2019 session today is older, wealthier, more Republican and less diverse than the state that it represents.
A review of public records by the Florida Phoenix shows:
–Nearly seven out of every 10 state senators are millionaires – based on their most recently reported net worths.
–In the 40-member state Senate, the average net worth is $5.48 million. The highest net worth ($45.8 million) belongs to Sen. George Gainer, a Panama City Republican who has built his wealth over decades as a successful car dealer.
–In the 117-member state House, about 29 percent (not counting three currently vacant seats) are millionaires. The average net worth is $1.55 million. Rep. Ralph Massullo, a dermatologist and Republican from Citrus County, has the largest net worth of $36.4 million.
–Six House members reported a negative net worth, meaning the money they owe exceeds their financial assets. The average negative net worth was $116,843. Five of those members reported outstanding student loans, which averaged $103,037.
The tilt toward wealth in the Legislature compares to a Florida population where the median household income was just $50,883 in 2017, according to the U.S. Census. About 15.5 percent of Florida residents live below the poverty level.
Lawmakers aren’t making their money serving in the Legislature – service in the House and Senate is considered a “part-time” job with a modest salary of $29,697 a year.
“I think that there are a lot of barriers to running for office, a lot of barriers to serving,” said Rep. Anna Eskamani, a Democrat from Orlando who is serving her first term. “You have to either come from wealth or be retired or have another job.”
Will the fact that the Legislature is dominated by older, conservative men dictate the outcome of issues ranging from health care to schools to the environment? Over the next 60 days, the Legislature will make laws that impact the lives of 21 million Floridians.
The Legislature’s unique demographic makeup could mean issues like expanding Medicaid to some 800,000 low-income Floridians who need health care or raising the minimum wage are not likely to gain traction during the annual session.
But it could mean the Legislature is more inclined to expand the use of vouchers to send students to private schools or to impose more restrictions on reproductive rights.
The Legislature is older than the broader population. The average age of House members is 47 years – the youngest is 23 and the oldest is 73. The senators have an average age of 55 years, the oldest is 34 and the oldest is 76.
By comparison, Florida’s population has a median age of 41.8 years, according to the U.S. Census.
When it comes to gender, the Florida Legislature is a male-dominated institution. In the Senate and House, men hold about 70 percent of the seats. Men also dominate committee chairmanships. In the Senate, they lead 17 of the 23 major committees. In the House, men lead 27 of the 33 major committees.
Those numbers contrast with Florida’s population, where women account for 51 percent of the residents.
The 28-year-old Eskamani is a statistical outlier in the Legislature. She is young, has a modest net worth, is a woman and is an outspoken liberal Democrat. She said she will be pushing issues like expanding the ability of cities and counties to impose rent controls because it would help Floridians like her.
“If you’re not a renter then you’re not going to be able to necessarily relate to it. And I am a renter,” she said. “It may be controversial for some. But at the end the day, these are the solutions that are going to change lives. And when we talk about rent control, the feedback that we receive from our constituents is overwhelmingly positive because no one else is having these conversations. And perhaps it is grounded in the fact that no one else (in the Legislature) can actually relate to it.”
When it comes to race, the representation of African-Americans in the state Legislature largely mirrors the general population. Fifteen percent of the Senate’s members and about 20 percent of House members are African-American. African-Americans account for about 17 percent of Florida’s residents.
Hispanic lawmakers hold 14 to 15 percent of the seats in the Legislature. That falls short of the general population, where more than 25 percent of residents are Hispanic. House Speaker Jose Oliva, a Republican from Miami-Dade County, is the highest-ranking Hispanic lawmaker in the Legislature.
Republicans hold the legislative majority, controlling 57.5 percent of the Senate seats and 61 percent of the House seats. That differs from the general electorate – in the 2018 election, 35.2 percent of registered voters were Republicans and 37 percent were Democrats.
Nearly 27 percent of Florida voters are registered without a party affiliation or as “independent” voters. But Florida’s voting system, which largely limits primary voting to either Republican or Democratic voters, makes it extremely difficult for an “independent” candidate to get elected to the Legislature.
Eskamani said there are many challenges for younger, working-class Floridians wanting to run for the Legislature.
She’s a non-profit consultant and is working on her doctorate at the University of Central Florida. Her net worth is just $14,400, and she has to balance her job with her legislative duties.
“That’s the reality of my life… I’m blessed to have a job with flexibility. But if you’re working a 9-to-5 job your ability to run for public office in this state is close to zero,” she said. “That’s a barrier alone. And that’s one of the reasons why the Legislature looks the way it does now.”