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Latvala faces long odds in bid to toughen residency requirements

“This is an issue that we’ve been working on for some time,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, during a Thursday news conference about his new bill intending to stop lawmakers from fudging where they live.

Since at least last summer, Latvala has been pushing Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford to authorize inquiries into whether certain lawmakers, especially Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, lived outside the districts they represent.

While Latvala swears this isn’t a political crusade, just remember that Sachs defeated one of Latvala’s allies in the Senate in 2012 who would have boosted his chances of becoming Senate President in 2016. During an April Senate ethics committee, Latvala lashed out at his spoiler, publicly accusing Sachs of violating the residency law. Sachs has maintained that she didn’t.

Because Florida law isn’t clear on the matter, Latvala hoped to clarify it himself.

So why didn’t Thursday’s unveiling of his long-awaited legislative cure feel more like a victory for Latvala?

Blame the number of questions swirling around his bill and the House companion sponsored by Rep. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero.

A legal opinion released on Wednesday is the main problem.

Written by the general counsels in the House and the Senate, the opinion stats that because of the Constitution’s separation of powers, courts have no jurisdiction in deciding the qualifications of legislators.

“Under the Florida Constitution, the House and the Senate serve as the ‘sole judge of the qualifications, elections, and returns of its members,’” the opinion stated.

So that means the bills Latvala and Rodrigues are sponsoring to clean up the Legislature must not include the Legislature. Instead, the bills will only apply to other office holders, such as school board members and county commissioners.

“We will probably have to except the Legislature out and refer to the rules of the Legislature,” Latvala said.

But all is not lost, Latvala said. The opinion does provide recommendations about better defining standards for determining residency that could be adopted in a joint rule by the Senate and House.

That rule would mimic the bills that Latvala and Rodrigues are pushing, so no exceptions would be made.

“If it’s good enough for the Legislature to have a process for determining the residency of our members, why should all bodies that require people to live in their district at the local level not have some kind of criteria as well?” Latvala said.

Not so fast.

It’s not certain that Latvala is going to convince the Legislature to make the rule change.

He doesn’t have any doubts. He said Weatherford and Gaetz are going to propose a joint rule “in the very near future” that will closely resemble his legislation.

Asked for what assurances he was given that this is so, Latvala said: “Trust me, I know they’re going to change the rule.”

Certainly Gaetz seems open to the idea. In a memo to Senators on Wednesday, Gaetz said it’s likely that the legal opinion will lead to “either a rule or a statutory change.” He’s made reference to his support for a either a joint rule, or a Senate rule a number of times over the last several months

But Weatherford, who didn’t gain Latvala’s support in one of his top priorities last year, an overhaul in the pension system, is a bit more vague.

Asked about Latvala’s claim that he will be proposing a joint rule, Weatherford’s spokesman, Ryan Duffy, emailed back: “The Speaker is reviewing the memo from the House and Senate General Counsels. Speaker Weatherford intends to address the residency issue and will make a decision in the next few weeks on how the House will proceed.”

Even if Weatherford does propose a joint rule change, it would require a majority vote in the House and a two-thirds vote in the Senate.

“We would stop right now knowing that we have brought this to the attention of the presiding officers and that they are acting on it, and I could stop and say, I’m very happy, and declare victory,” Latvala said Thursday.

That might have to suffice.