Lawmakers dodge term limits, land big pensions through local politics

Article Courtesy of The

By Steve Bousquet

Published August 5, 2015


TALLAHASSEE -- Florida legislators keep finding ways to dodge the career-ending trap of term limits, often with richly rewarding results — paid for by taxpayers.

It has been more than two decades since voters emphatically declared that eight years in an office was enough as they broke the grip that career politicians had on the state Capitol.

Since then, dozens of lawmakers who were forced out by term limits soon resurfaced in local elected offices. Their new jobs, which often paid six-figure salaries, have not only prolonged their political careers but also fattened their retirement accounts.

It’s a direct result of term limits, and it happens so routinely that it often escapes attention.

Five of 13 commissioners in Miami-Dade County are former legislators, as are three of nine commissioners in Broward. Three of seven county commissioners in Hillsborough County are former state lawmakers, as are three of seven in Pinellas.

Atop the roster of recycled politicians is former Senate President Ken Pruitt, who left the Legislature after two decades and became property appraiser in St. Lucie County. The job pays $133,000 a year but is not subject to term limits, and it allows Pruitt to have a lucrative sideline as a Tallahassee lobbyist, which earned him an additional $230,000 in income last year along with $55,000 more with a real estate investment company.

On top of that, an annual pension of more than $100,000 awaits Pruitt when he retires, courtesy of taxpayers.

Others include former Sen. Mike Fasano, tax collector in Pasco County; former Sen. Carey Baker, property appraiser in Lake County; former Rep. Joe Tedder, tax collector in Polk County; former Sen. Dave Aronberg, state attorney in Palm Beach County; and former Sen. Mike Bennett of Bradenton, supervisor of elections in Manatee County and one of four former lawmakers now in charge of overseeing voting in their counties.

Palm Beach County’s mayor, tax collector and supervisor of elections are all former House members, as are Marion County Tax Collector George Albright, Orange County Tax Collector Scott Randolph and two members of the Miami-Dade School Board, Wilbert “Tee” Holloway and Dorothy Bendross-Mindingall. Former Rep. William Snyder went home to be sheriff of Martin County.

All earn far more in their current jobs than the nearly $30,000 a year they made as legislators.

Well-known at home, skilled at raising campaign money and schooled in the inner workings of government, they simply don’t want to retire.

The trend is likely to continue in 2016.

Term-limited Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, is one of three people, along with former senators Steve Geller and Nan Rich, eyeing seats on the Broward County Commission. The job pays $96,000 a year, more than three times as high as a legislative paycheck.

“If it wasn’t for term limits, most of us would still be in the Legislature,” said Smith, a lawyer with 15 years of legislative experience at age 45. “But being moved out in the prime of our careers results in running for another office. It’s an unintended consequence of term limits.”

Republican Sen. Nancy Detert of Venice will seek an $81,000-a-year Sarasota County Commission seat next year, though she could remain in the Senate until 2018.

Detert’s potential rival, former North Port Mayor Jim Blucher, said that’s wrong.

“We’re having more and more lifetime politicians,” Blucher said. “I hate to see a person run for another position just because it pays more money. It’s just not right.”

Detert said that serving as a legislator is a sacrifice, considering the long hours and low salary, and that her long history of service speaks for itself.

“It’s never been about the money,” Detert said. “I’ve done this for a long time for very little money. It’s supposed to be part time, but everybody knows it’s not.”

Former Manatee County Commissioner Jane von Hahmann lost a 2012 race for elections supervisor to Bennett, whose fund-raising network after 12 years in Tallahassee enabled him to overwhelm his rivals.

“I know why they do it,” von Hahmann said. “They get a very good pension out of it.”

She said lesser-known candidates have little chance against veteran lawmakers because “they have the clout from name recognition and they have that donor base.”

As former lawmakers occupy more and more local offices, advocates of term limits see nothing wrong with it.

“The chief aims of term limits are competitive elections and rotation in office,” said Philip Blumel of West Palm Beach, president of U.S. Term Limits. “Nothing about a term-limited politician running for a new office impedes those goals.”

Ben Wilcox of Common Cause Florida, who has followed the Legislature for two decades, did not criticize the trend. Pamela Goodman, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, which supports term limits, said experience in government still matters.

“It’s really specific to the person and the position,” Goodman said. “I commend anyone who runs for office.”

Florida voters eagerly embraced term limits in 1992 by a majority of 77 percent, limiting state legislators to eight years in the same office starting in 2000. (Some senators serve 10 years because Senate terms are staggered.)

It soon reshaped the political culture in Florida. In a revolving-door House tightly controlled by a handful of members, inexperienced freshmen jockey for leadership posts before casting a single vote, and soon are scrambling to run for the Senate, which has proven to be an effective springboard to Congress as well.

Not long after term limits took effect, Republicans foresaw problems and floated the idea of asking voters to stretch their terms to 12 years. But former Gov. Jeb Bush, among others, quashed the idea in 2005 — and it hasn’t been heard from since.

Years before term limits became a reality, Pat Frank departed Tallahassee in 1988, ending a career as a tough-minded Democratic senator from Tampa. She left on her terms. A decade later, she was elected to the Hillsborough County Commission before being elected clerk of the court, which pays $160,000 a year.

At 85, she’s running for a fourth term as clerk in 2016 and shows no signs of slowing down.

“This setting of terms is arbitrary,” Frank said. “The voters should make that decision. Every time you’re up for election, it’s a term limit.”

After she left the Senate, Frank, who earlier also was a school board member, began drawing a state pension of $800 a month because she didn’t think she would ever run for office again, and said she wouldn’t have done that if she were motivated by money. Her later years as commissioner and clerk currently would qualify her for a pension of about $7,000 a month if she retired next year.

Public officials’ pensions are calculated based on total years of government service and the average of their five highest-salaried years, so just one four-year term in a high-paying local office creates a retirement bonanza.

The more years in office, the higher the pension. A number of former lawmakers will collect pensions approaching or exceeding $100,000 a year.

Fasano, a former senator from New Port Richey who was appointed tax collector in Pasco County by Gov. Rick Scott after 19 years in the Legislature, was elected without opposition last year and said his legislative experience has made him a better officeholder.

Fasano, who said he favors term limits, replaced Mike Olson, who died after 32 years in office. Fasano said the agency was in need of change, so he boosted pay (some workers were making only $9.25 an hour) and modernized the office (most employees did not have voice mail).

“When someone holds the same position for 20 or 30 years, it’s not healthy,” Fasano said. “You need fresh ideas, fresh blood. If that’s what it takes to get new ideas, then we need term limits.”