TALLAHASSEE — State lawmakers will look more closely than ever at a group of citizens who may have been less than precise in reporting personal information so they could obtain certain government benefits.
Those citizens are their fellow lawmakers. The benefits are public office and all the perks that go with it. The questions have arisen over whether all of them really live in the districts they are elected to represent.
“It’s both unethical and illegal,” said Clearwater Republican Jack Latvala, who is cracking down on residency scofflaws in his role as chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections committee.
By an 11-0 vote, the committee this week moved forward a bill (SB 602) that would count utility usage and the address on federal income tax returns, among other records, to determine legal residence. It has two more committees to clear before heading to the chamber floor for consideration.
If the measure passes, it will mean new scrutiny for lawmakers such as Rep. Janet Cruz, a Tampa Democrat,
whose husband lists his principal residence in county records as a wealthy waterfront South Tampa neighborhood on the other side of the highway from the region his wife represents.
Cruz was elected from District 62, a more working class area that includes West Tampa, Town ‘n Country and Egypt Lake.
Cruz married Dr. Stephen Rifkin in 2003 and he claims a homestead tax exemption on his property at 5035 W. San Miguel St. Cruz has hosted several fund raising events there.
Cruz said she rents a house in the Wellswood neighborhood, north of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and west of the Hillsborough River. Wellswood is in her district.
In an e-mail Tuesday, Cruz spoke of her connections to West Tampa and Wellswood, where her children attended Tampa Catholic High School.
“Not only is West Tampa and District 62 my home, but it’s my heart and soul,” she said.
Cruz’s voting precinct is listed in the county elections supervisor’s office as Wellswood Baptist Church.
The Florida constitution requires legislators to be “an elector (registered voter) and resident” of the district from which they were elected.
“I live in District 62, vote in District 62 and, most importantly, I love District 62,” Cruz said.
A check of property records shows that most of the other 13 members of the Hillsborough County legislative delegation claim homestead exemptions on homes within their district boundaries.
Rep. Jake Raburn, a Republican and native of Plant City, bought a house in his district last year but only after being elected for the first time in 2012. Raburn had previously claimed homestead exemption on a home at 4102 Three Oaks Road, northwest of Plant City and outside his district.
Sen. John Legg ran up against the residency requirement in his 2012 Republican primary battle against Rob Wallace, a former state representative. Wallace said Legg, then a representative, should resign his House seat because he had moved out of his Port Richey home, which was in his House district.
Legg acknowledged he was splitting time between Port Richey and his wife’s home in the southwestern Pasco County community of Trinity. Legg said he was in the process of moving full time to his wife’s house, which is in his current Senate district.
Property records show Legg still owns the Port Richey home, but is not claiming homestead exemption on it.
Sen. Latvala had hoped the Legislature could tighten the residency requirements by merely changing House and Senate rules without having to pass a new law.
Then he heard of city and county commissioners and school board members around the state who have also been accused of living outside their districts.
Latvala’s bill mirrors the proposed rule changes, he said. The changes were adopted anyway, on Tuesday, the first day of the 2014 legislative session.
The measure passed by the Senate ethics committee lists 20 factors “that may be considered” in determining whether a candidate or elected official meets a residency requirement. Among them are:
♦ Proof of payment and the amount used of electricity and other utilities.
♦ The address listed on filed federal income tax returns.
♦ The address where the individual claims a homestead exemption.
♦ The address on a voter information card or motor vehicle registration.
♦ Where the person gets mail.
♦ The amount of time that he or she spends at the place they call home.
Latvala said a judge or a special master, a kind of judicial substitute, would have to determine how to measure that last factor when it comes into play.
“They’re all just options,” Latvala said. “There’s no weighted formula.”
In 1997, The Tallahassee Democrat measured electricity usage in an investigation into allegations that a sitting Leon County commissioner didn’t live in his district.
In that case, a spokesman for the city, which runs the utilities, said power usage at the commissioner’s purported home reflected “little more than having a refrigerator going.”
After the ethics committee vote, House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Destin, released a statement hailing Latvala’s bill as “the furthest step to date to clarify the constitutional provision” requiring lawmakers to live in their districtrs.
“By adopting a joint rule on residency, there should be greater certainty in how the Legislature determines whether members are living among the people they are elected to represent,” Weatherford and Gaetz said in the statement.
A companion bill (HB 571) has been filed in the House. It hasn’t yet received a hearing.
Tribune staff writer Mike Salinero contributed to this report.
How to sound off
SB 602/HB 571 would use a number of additional records to determine whether candidates for office actually live in the district they are running to represent.
To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there.