Wealth inequality in the United States is at its worst since before the Great Depression, a phenomenon starkly displayed in the Florida state legislature.
Historical trends of access to public office have led to 2 of every 10 Florida state legislators being millionaires, which includes almost 70% of the Senate and 29% of the House.
The Florida Phoenix analyzed the demographics of the Florida state legislature and found that the wealthiest members are Sen. George Gainer, R-Jackson, and Rep. Ralph Massullo, R-Lecanto, who have a net worth of $46.46 million and $42.4 million respectively. The average net worth of all Florida legislators is $4.9 million.
Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, told the Florida Phoenix, “I think that there are a lot of barriers to running for office, a lot of barriers to serving… You have to either come from wealth or be retired or have another job.”
Rep. Eskamani’s comments shine light on the fact that many Floridians could not afford running for state office even if they wanted to. The low salary of Florida state legislators is one barrier to serving for Floridians whose wealth more accurately reflects the constituents.
State legislators are paid $29,697 a year, with an additional per-diem intended to cover lodging, meals, and incidental expenses that brings the overall salary at its highest to $37,437. Of the 10 states whose legislators have full-time, well paid, large staff, Florida pays its legislators the least by a margin of slightly over $20,000.
An Alachua County yearly living wage for two adults with one working is $38,294; add a child to the family, and that number becomes $46,373; another child, $51,458. The statewide average numbers are even higher.
The burdens placed on state legislators — who must campaign for their seat, commute back and forth from Tallahassee while paying their full-time operating staff, and maintain their own financial stability — leave many Floridians out of even considering a run for office.
The low salaries for legislators creates an implicit requirement that those running for office must have enough wealth amassed to complete the job without having to rely solely on its salary.
The result is a legislature made up of the wealthy who can afford their seat. The question of whether a public office should be a position to be ‘afforded’ is debated — especially since the responsibility of deciding how to spend citizens’ tax dollars falls on the state. This leads some to question the extent to which the soaring wealth of Florida state legislators and its impact on decision-making erodes democracy.
Whether the disproportionate number of millionaires in the state legislature office undermines democratic values is controversial and remains so as this trend continues.
Featured Photo: Unmodified photo by Florida House of Representatives used under a Creative Commons license. http://bit.ly/swearingin2019
Correction: September 22, 2019
This article originally incorrectly stated that Rep. Anna Eskamani’s net worth was $250,000.