Don Gaetz: Lawmaker Residency Will Pass 'Straight-Face Test'
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Making sure lawmakers live in their districts will be among Senate President Don Gaetz's top priorities this session, the Niceville Republican told a bipartisan group of Senate leaders Monday.
Gaetz said he and House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, may pass a joint rule that would require lawmakers to live in their districts, after reports that some members of the House and Senate appear to reside outside the areas they represent. The reports have primarily focused on Democratic lawmakers.
Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said later he intends to sponsor legislation that will address at least part of the issue and is unconcerned about a possible backlash from House Republicans, some of whom are purported to live outside their districts.
"I don't care. The [Florida] Constitution says people need to live in their districts, and they need to live in their districts. If we elected officials can't abide by the Constitution, what kind of example are we?" Latvala said.
Latvala has been on a crusade about residency since last year when Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs defeated Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, in a newly drawn seat straddling Palm Beach and Broward counties. The November election pitted the two incumbents against one another in a bitter campaign.
Sachs has been under scrutiny because the home she and her husband own is outside of the District 34 boundaries. Sachs at one time claimed to live in a Fort Lauderdale condo owned by a friend but recently changed her voter registration to a condominium in Delray Beach.
The Florida Constitution requires that lawmakers be at least 21 years old and be "an elector and resident of the district from which elected" and have lived in the state for two years prior to being elected. But, unlike many other states, Florida law does not expand on the residency requirements.
Courts in some cases have used criteria including where one normally resides and receives mail to establish residency, according to a list compiled by Latvala's committee staff. Many other states define residency as an elected official's primary abode and to which he or she intends to return after an absence.
A recent audit by Secretary of State Ken Detzner, ordered by Gaetz and Weatherford, found that all 160 lawmakers are registered to vote in their own districts, but the registrations don't go far enough to prove lawmakers live where they should, Gaetz and Latvala said.
Latvala, a close friend of Bogdanoff, said he would also co-sponsor legislation that would ban lawmakers from claiming homestead exemption on residences outside of their districts but that the bill may go farther.
Gaetz said he hoped a rule would be in place before the legislative session begins in March.
"People ought to live among those they represent. This is not the British parliament where you get to sort of move to wherever there's an open seat. You ought to be going to the grocery store, going to synagogue and church and school among the people you represent. That's what this representative government is about," he said.
A Senate rule would give members the ability to police whether lawmakers are in compliance.
Latvala did not say how residency requirements could be enforced or possible punishments for violations.
"There's nothing we can do up here that's iron clad. All we can do is try to close the loopholes," he said.