Cost of special sessions continues to add up for Florida taxpayers

Tia Mitchell | The Florida Times Union | 08/07/2015

I heard recently from a Times-Union reader who had a question: How much money will a special session cost Florida taxpayers?

Well, he didn’t quite say it like that. “How much does this tomfoolery cost the taxpayer in extra sessions time?” he said on my voicemail.

This reader said he had been curious about the costs of special sessions ever since reading about the June overtime that allowed lawmakers to finalize the state budget. That didn’t get done during the regular session because the House and Senate ended it in a stalemate because of disagreement over Medicaid expansion.

Now we’re facing another two-week special session, this time on redistricting. For the third time since 2012, the Legislature will meet to determine how to draw lines for Florida’s 27 congressional districts. In October, a third special session for 2015 will be held so that legislators can redraw 40 state Senate seats.

I wrote about the redistricting special sessions in last week’s column. After reading it, this curious reader called me and I promised I would find out the answer to his question.

I learned that state officials calculate the cost of a special session in the added travel and meal allocations for the 160 lawmakers who are required to attend. I guess the thinking is the lights of the Capitol would be on and staff members would be working year-round regardless if the Legislature is in session, so those aren’t added costs.

Lawmakers can either collect a flat rate of $80 per day to cover travel and meals, or they can turn in the actual cost of nightly lodging and receive another $36 a day for food. (They also are reimbursed for the cost of making one trip to Tallahassee and back to their districts, but that varies from plane tickets to Miami and the car rides that most Northeast Florida lawmakers make.)

For simplicity sake, we’ll just focus on the food and lodging and say that all lawmakers go for the flat rate. That means a special session costs Florida taxpayers $12,800 a day.

The redistricting special session that begins tomorrow is scheduled for 12 days, for a grand total of $153,600.

If it’s any consolation to those who winced at the price tag, these next two special sessions are likely the Legislature’s last chance to control the redistricting process. If the Florida Supreme Court still thinks the revised maps are illegally gerrymandered, it could take matters into its own hands.

Of course, there are some elected officials who say it is the Supreme Court that should be blamed for costing taxpayers $153,600. They argue the court was too activist in throwing out the maps and interpreted the Fair Districts Amendment improperly.

Among them is U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown of Jacksonville, who filed suit last week to prevent the Legislature from redrawing her district. Brown’s district currently meanders from Jacksonville to Orlando, but the Legislature said it intends to follow court orders to make it run west to Tallahassee.

Another lawsuit filed by Republican Party leaders in Pasco and Walton counties challenges the anti-gerrymandering constitutional amendment and how the court has used it to rule on redistricting efforts.

If Brown and the others prevail, it could ultimately make everything accomplished in these upcoming special sessions moot. Now that would be a waste.

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